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5 December 2018

Aboard May Force One, I begin to wonder if the Prime Minister’s Christmas wish will be granted

In the past few days in Buenos Aires, following the PM has been bizarre in the extreme.

By Laura Kuenssberg

Writing a letter to Santa Claus seems just as useful a task as trying to predict what may have happened in British politics by the time you read this – when our attention should be on remembering to take the foul plastic bag of giblets out of the turkey to avoid catastrophe; or hunting for the vital piece of Christmas Lego that got lost moments after the wrapping was torn off in a frenzy; or indeed wondering whether two mince pies, the strawberry creams left at the bottom of the chocolate tin and assorted glasses of wine cover all your food groups.

Flying Theresy-jet

I’m writing this from the RAF Voyager plane (May Force One, or Theresy-jet – get two cracker joke puns for the price of one) bringing the Prime Minister back from the G20 summit in South America.

The only thing we lobby hacks know for sure is that by the time we get to the other side of the big December day – the meaningful vote, of course, not Christmas – someone’s wishes will have come true. There may even have been a second vote to try to ram the Brexit deal through –  our cups runneth over with Yuletide cheer! But whose wish will have been granted? The Prime Minister’s simple wish to survive?

Hold me close

In the past few days in Buenos Aires, following the PM has been bizarre in the extreme. We’ve seen her try to be stern with the Saudi crown prince, or making small talk with Ivanka Trump, who had wangled her way into the summit too, and endeavouring to look enthusiastic during the hours-long dance performance arranged for the G20 leaders and their spouses.

Before you ask, Philip May gave the whole trip a swerve, missing out on both the leotards and tango that night and lunch with Melania Trump and the Argentinian president’s supermodel-esque wife. The lunch was arranged for the leaders’ wives – yes, the rest were all wives – and I’m not sure he’d have been able to compete with the heels and blow-dries of those two. They were worth a reality show all of their own – The Real Housewives of G20. Imagine. 

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This PM has ceased to be

Throughout the trip, it felt as though it wasn’t the conversations there with other world leaders that really mattered, but the talks at home with Theresa May’s own grumpy MPs. News of the science minister Sam Gyimah’s resignation arrived after a day when the Prime Minister had managed not just to make herself heard in interviews over the squawking parrots in the British ambassador’s tropical garden, but to get through an intense media round without committing too much news.

She did not dismiss, though, the possibility of a second Brexit vote in parliament. It may be the only way for her to hang on, although one insider made it clear the prospect is still fairly horrendous: “The Chief Whip is normally grey. Mention a second vote, he goes white and then bright red.”

Tangerine dreams

Right now, it does not matter what the government is actually trying to do, because everyone in Westminster is focused on counting. Not the days to Christmas, but the numbers for and against the Brexit deal. We want to know who, at any moment, might suddenly come on board – or scream with protest.

Fourteen hours there and back to Argentina meant 28 hours out of the most important job for the PM at the moment – peeling off Tory rebels, hoping that her day won’t be ruined by another resignation; by Mr Grumpalot, the parliamentary under secretary for paper clips, suddenly quitting, or Ms Gettingoutbeforeitgoesdown, the minister of state for Christmas tangerines, departing.

Glitter balls

Many baubles will be found to dangle in front of recalcitrant MPs, those on all sides who have, frankly, been professionally cross for months now, to urge them to vote for May’s deal. But it may not be enough.

There are MPs who have gleefully predicted a full-blown constitutional crisis for two years now, and they seem the only ones likely to get their wish. Our political system seems to be proving itself almost incapable of dealing with what’s been put before it. The decisions it is making, or fluffing, are so vital, and yet are inevitably so compromised by the endless political calculations of all involved. A New Year’s resolution of peace and goodwill in Westminster? It’s more likely that Santa will actually come down the Chequers chimney.

Dry Christmas

There are plenty of things that MPs on all sides are hoping won’t happen – not least a final vote taking place on 24 December. (A few weeks ago a concerned government insider confessed that the Chief Whip had even suggested a vote the day before Christmas might concentrate minds. But having mentioned it once, the reception it received made sure it wasn’t brought up again.)

There are also fears of a reprise of one of the unforeseen mini-dramas of the vote that sunk Jim Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979. Whispers suggest that one of the problems that night was that the Commons refreshment department was closed. The horror! The story goes that one enterprising MP brought in their own bottle of whisky, which had to be shared around.

Surely if parliament is sitting because the Prime Minister is struggling to survive and Jeremy Corbyn scents a chance at sinking her, Christmas elves on all sides will make sure that doesn’t happen this time. Eggnogs all round. Happy Christmas! 

Laura Kuenssberg is the BBC’s political editor

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