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A pair of presidential PMs

Is Boris Johnson reminiscent of Churchill or a very different PM?

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

We British do like anniversaries. This year alone I’ve been heavily involved in the celebrations of two of them: The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and the Burghley 500, which celebrated the quincentenary of William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s great minister.

But, every so often, an anniversary slips us by: uncelebrated and even unnoticed. Even an important one, when the political system was up-ended by a backbench revolt. Even when there are clues.

Like the date, 1922. Even when the same places are involved. Like the Carlton Club. Time to give the game away, if it’s not given already. Boris Johnson labours under the illusion that he is another Churchill. Actually the resemblance, astonishing both in gross and in detail, is to Churchill’s other great contemporary, David Lloyd George.

Indeed, the parallels between the two men and their careers are so close that it’s tempting to give Karl Marx’s dictum yet another dust-down and talk of history happening twice: first as tragedy and then as farce. Which would make Boris Johnson Napoleon III to the Welsh Wizard’s imperial premiership.

Which, to be truthful, sounds about right.

At first sight, of course, the suggested comparison seems simply silly. For what could a Tory Eton toff have in common with the radical son of Welsh nonconformity? But origins can’t explain everything: dig a little deeper, and it’s the resemblances that strike.

Both had highly disrupted childhoods: Lloyd George’s father died when he was only eleven and his uncle became the dominant force in his upbringing; Johnson had to contend with his philandering father and hospitalised mother.

Both were bitten early by the bug of vaulting ambition: Johnson wanted to be “world king”; the 18-year-old Lloyd George, on first seeing the chamber of the House of Commons, experienced the same feelings, he noted in his diary, as “William the Conqueror [when he] eyed England on his visit to Edward the Confessor”. And conquer England he would and, it seemed, just as absolutely.

Both were driven by a powerful sexual appetite

Both men had ways — very different it is true — with words. And both were driven by a powerful sexual appetite (here the contrast with the monogamous Churchill is especially striking). Johnson has gone through marriages and mistresses like a knife through butter and scattered offspring, on both sides of the blanket, with a prodigal hand; Lloyd George kept a wife in Wales and a mistress in London and diverted himself from these two lifelong relationships by seducing the wives of his Liberal backbenchers.

They adored his caressing hands, his neat figure and his fashionably long, soft, well-groomed hair. Which, I would concede, cannot be the key to Boris’s success with women.

The result, hair aside, was to create two men similarly compounded of equal parts egotism and charisma, at once beguiling and repellent. Consider A. J. P. Taylor’s masterly pen-portrait of Lloyd George:

He had no friends and did not deserve any. He repaid loyalty with disloyalty. He was surrounded by dependants and sycophants, whom he rewarded lavishly and threw aside when they had served their turn. His rule was dynamic and sordid at the same time. He himself gave hostages to fortune by the irregularity of his private life. But essentially his devious methods sprang from his nature. He could do things no other way.

There is scarcely a single word that does not apply equally to Boris Johnson.

These two extraordinary, outsize personalities also benefitted from extraordinary times. Lloyd George became prime minister in 1916 at the nadir of the First World War when it seemed, as he himself wrote, “we are going to lose this war”. Johnson reached Number Ten at a comparable moment in domestic affairs, when the three year-long crisis brought about by the furious rear-guard action of the Remainer elites against the Brexit referendum threatened to turn into a sort of national nervous breakdown.

Both therefore took the premiership over the political corpse of their failed predecessor (Herbert Asquith and Theresa May), and both were haunted by their unquiet ghosts. Finally, both had a single, though infinitely difficult, job: Lloyd George’s was to win the war; Johnson’s to cut the parliamentary Gordian knot and “Get Brexit Done”. And both were given, or took, carte blanche to do it.

Taylor makes no bones about it and calls Lloyd George “dictator for the duration of the war”. He even invokes the comparison with Napoleon I. Contemporaries, like the former Tory premier, A. J. Balfour, used the same language: “If [Lloyd George] wants to be dictator, let him be. If he thinks he can win the war, I’m all for him having a try.”

But “having a try” entailed a revolutionary re-modelling of British government. Parliament and the Cabinet were sidelined and executive power concentrated instead in the hands of a five-strong War Cabinet. The War Cabinet was serviced by the newly created secretariat that became the Cabinet Office.

This was run as his own fiefdom by the ferociously hardworking and ambitious Sir Maurice Hankey, who acted as CEO to Lloyd George’s chairman. Businessmen were brought in to procure supplies and direct the economy. And it was another outsider who, in the teeth of Admiralty opposition, came up with the convoy system that saved Britain’s imports of food and raw materials from the U-boat menace.

The result, Taylor observes, resembled the administration of “a president of the United States, who often relies more on unofficial advisers rather than on members of his cabinet”. It also resembled the post-Covid government of Boris Johnson even more as the pandemic-induced lockdown mimicked the conditions of total war.

Johnson used the same administrative instruments and similar businessmen and women to procure the desperately needed supplies of PPE. He even enjoyed his own convoy moment with the triumph of Kate Bingham’s Vaccination Task Force.

The wheel came full circle since the two men ended the same way as well — and exactly, such are the strange tricks of time, a century apart. Lloyd George had a sweeping victory in the December 1918 “Coupon” Election thanks to a coalition of Lloyd George Liberals and Conservatives. And Johnson was similarly triumphant in the December 2019 election thanks to another, almost as strange, coalition of ex-Labour voters in the Red Wall and traditional Tory voters in the South.

“He can be prime minister for life if he likes,” it was said of Lloyd George. Johnson, for once showing relative restraint, only predicted ten years in office for himself.

Both strutted on the foreign stage

In fact, he has lasted just two-and-a-half years since his general election victory while Lloyd George didn’t quite make four. Like Napoleons I and III, both men had ridden the wild horses of war: Lloyd George, the world conflict of the First World War; Johnson, the phoney war of Covid. Now both men reaped the post-war whirlwind of soaring inflation and sky-high taxes. Ireland was a headache for both of them too. Both strutted on the foreign stage: Lloyd George at the Versailles Peace Conference; Johnson in the Ukraine. But it did them little good at home.

What finished both of them off, however, was sleaze: Partygate for Johnson and for Lloyd George, the 1922 Birthday Honours list when the stench from his profligate sale of titles of knighthood and nobility finally became too strong.

The Cabinets of both men proved notably reluctant to move against them. Instead, their destruction was begun by their backbenchers. And it is the 1922 Tory backbench revolt against the “Coupon” coalition and the ensuing 1922 general election intake of MPs that gives its name to the present 1922 Committee. Which, having played a starring role in Johnson’s defenestration, is supervising the election of his successor.

But where does the resemblance end? Lloyd George’s fall destroyed the Liberal Party as a serious force in British politics. Will Johnson’s removal inflict the same disaster on the Tories?

The hand of fate seems strong and I don’t see many convincing exorcists in the current batch of leadership hopefuls.

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