The phrase like turkeys voting for Christmas and variants are used to suggest that a particular action or decision is hopelessly self-defeating.
This phrase seems to have first been used during the following episode of British politics:
By April 1976, the Labour government of James Callaghan1 had lost its parliamentary majority and had to rely on deals with smaller parties, including the Scottish National Party (SNP), for its survival. On 1st March 1979 a Referendum on the Scotland Act saw a majority vote for devolution, but a threshold imposed by anti-devolution MPs requiring 40% of the electorate to be in favour was not reached due to low turnout. The government’s decision to abandon devolution led the SNP to withdraw its support for the Labour government. After establishing that the Liberals and the SNP would vote for a motion of censure, the Conservative opposition led by Margaret Thatcher2 tabled a motion of no confidence on 28th March.
During the debate in the House of Commons on 28th March 1979, James Callaghan criticised the SNP, committed to independence for Scotland, for voting with the Conservative Party, who opposed devolution:
The right hon. Lady, the Leader of the Opposition […] waited for the well-advertised move by the Scottish National Party. Its Members told the world what they would do, and they did it. They tabled a motion censuring the Government. For what? For not immediately bringing the Act into force.
We can truly say that once the Leader of the Opposition discovered what the Liberals and the SNP would do, she found the courage of their convictions.
So, tonight, the Conservative Party, which wants the Act repealed and opposes even devolution, will march through the Lobby with the SNP, which wants independence for Scotland, and with the Liberals, who want to keep the Act. What a massive display of unsullied principle!
The minority parties have walked into a trap. If they win, there will be a general election. I am told that the current joke going around the House is that it is the first time in recorded history that turkeys have been known to vote for an early Christmas.
James Callaghan’s government was defeated by one vote, and a general election was subsequently called.
In PM’s spectre of ‘jobless deserts’ under Tories, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Tuesday 10th April 1979, Keith Harper reported James Callaghan as using the phrase again in a speech delivered the previous day in Glasgow, Scotland:
Turning to devolution, Mr Callaghan admitted that “the gentlemen in Whitehall do not always know best” and that this was “the devolution election.” He did not regret that it had been precipitated by a marriage of convenience between the Conservatives, who opposed the Scotland Act, and the Scottish National Party, which claimed to support it.
“Not since Laurel met Hardy was there a more comical misalliance. I warned the SNP they were turkeys voting for Christmas. Now it is up to you to carve them up in the polling booths.”
In Provincial leaders show mixed reaction to vote, published in the Star-Phoenix (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada) of Friday 14th December 1979, Marsha Erb reported Allan Emrys Blakeney (1925-2011), Premier of Saskatchewan, as using the phrase—the minority government of Joe Clark3, having lost the support of the Social Credit Party, had just been defeated on a motion of no confidence:
The fall of the federal government over its first budget was met with mixed reactions by provincial politicians as they milled outside the legislative chambers shortly after the news broke.
The Clark Progressive Conservative government was defeated Thrusday [sic] on a non-confidence motion after an almost seven-month term in office.
Premier Allan Blakeney, in obvious high spirits, said he was surprised by the news because he had been convinced that the Social Credit Party would support the government. “It struck me that their failure to do so was like turkeys voting for an early Christmas.”
3 Charles Joseph Clark (born 1939), Canadian statesman, businessman and author, Prime Minister of Canada 1979-80