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18 December 2017

In Brussels, it feels like Britain is the embarrassing relative at Christmas

Theresa May has perhaps become the auntie who is invited for the turkey feast but not the party.

By Laura Kuenssberg

There is no friendly commuter bashing out “Good King Wenceslas” on the piano on the concourse to cheer up the rushing crowds. There are no twinkling lights or artfully draped boughs of holly, let alone a 20ft heft of Norwegian spruce. There are no careful window displays of the kind of charming but pointless leather goods that no one buys during the 11 other months of the year (a personalised chestnut-brown leather golf-card holder, anyone?).

It is 5.13am at the Eurostar terminal in St Pancras, where it seems there is, officially, no cheer. Much as I am a happy and contented Channel Tunnel passenger, lucky to be covering one of the biggest and most endlessly fascinating stories of my life (honest), once you are through passport control there is no sign of Christmas, no beautiful magasins, not a bauble in sight, and mercifully perhaps no eggnog latte.

Yes, it is time again for what has been my most favoured mini-break this year. OK, the only one really. The journey through the Home Counties to the coast, under the sea (which always sounds cooler than it feels; it just gets dark and you lose the Wi-Fi), to emerge blinking past the depressing metal miles of fences around Calais, through the flat fields of Flanders to emerge at the other end into the Brussels cobbled square where sometimes soldiers eerily stand guard.

Fairy land

By December last year, Theresa May had become embroiled in rows of such high political import as the cost of the leather trousers she had borrowed for a glossy photo shoot. Warnings about the difficulties of leaving the EU were bouncing around, but the cabinet was months away from any detailed conversations about our departure, still hiding behind “Brexit means Brexit”.

The government was well aware of the difficulties of dealing with not much public money and a smallish majority. But it was politically easy (or rather, easier) to deal with this when the Prime Minister seemed to be untouchable in the polls. There had been no victory for Gina Miller; no bungled Budget; no ministers’ past bad behaviour embarrassing and distracting the government. Above all else, there was no fairy on the top of the tree: the big disaster, the God-awful mess of the Prime Minister’s own making, the election she almost lost that stripped away her authority.

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Eggnog days

In Brussels these days, it feels like Britain is the embarrassing relative. Theresa May has perhaps become the auntie who is invited for the turkey feast but not for the Christmas Eve party the night before. You know, the one with proper booze, rather than Bristol Cream, which ended with Christmas karaoke, 20 packets of emergency crisps at 1am and a row no one can remember.

And while you might say, “We must meet up again soon,” frankly there’s a sigh of relief in the rest of the household when Auntie Theresa hurries away as soon as the Queen’s Speech is over. (I mean the one on the telly at 3pm, not the one in the Houses of Parliament.)

Monsieur Le Scrooge

That awkwardness has been the backdrop for not one but two Brussels visits for the Prime Minister and Westminster press pack in December. Imagine: “Jean-Claude, you will see me for an hour? Wonderful! Ooh, I’d love to come, what can I bring? Forty billion vol-au-vents? I’d be delighted!”

The Prime Minister is increasingly in the position of giving rather than taking. Brussels is not playing Monsieur Le Scrooge for fun. It is absolutely apparent now that when the EU27 said they would stick together, they meant it. When they said they would religiously follow their politically agreed mandate, they meant that as well. And when they say that a deal with a country outside the EU can’t be as good as what you get in the club, well, they mean that, too. It is also obvious that the EU side is as well versed in political expectation management and game playing as the Brits.

Tidings of comfort

I’m writing this at the start of the month, when the government hopes for little else for Christmas but moving on to the next round of Brexit talks, so it’s foolish to second-guess if their wish has been granted. Not least because it’s hard to know if the helpful elves of the DUP will play along, and how all sides of the Tory party will react if things go wrong. But power and influence in the talks are not exactly moving No 10’s way.

But here’s a funny thing – if not the fashionable view. And look, after the events of the past 12 months, the following moderate glad tidings are no guarantee whatsoever that 2018 augurs well for either the Tories or the Labour Party. But… both main party leaders have some reasons to be cheerful. It didn’t feel like a dead cert in the crazy days after the election, but Theresa May will again preside over the lighting of the Downing Street tree this year. That flimsy stability may yet end very fast, but she has made it this far – which for the more charitable among you could be considered an achievement.

Santa Clause Four

Jeremy Corbyn can enjoy the fizz of recent polls, but he has not yet extended a consistent, unassailable lead over the Tories. MPs who back him shake their heads and wonder why. His critics – much muted but still lurking – believe they know the reason, but since the election they have been much more shy about pointing the finger.

The huge excitement about the result in June is still hampered by bitter rows over selections. But my goodness, the Labour leader has plenty of reasons to be climbing back into his Santa suit (as he did for the BBC’s cameras in years gone by) for a full-on Christmas celebration. A big, fat fortnight of a party… or at least lying down in a dark room and having a nice rest – the kind I fully intend to have once all these non- festive pesky trips to Brussels are done, for this year at least. 

Laura Kuenssberg is the BBC political editor

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special