Is Boris a Churchill or a Lloyd George?

Boris seems to subconsciously avoid the subject of Lloyd George, though he shares more in common with him

Paul Johnson

Not difficult to see why Boris Johnson jumped at the publisher’s request to write a life of Churchill. It was an excellent opportunity to show why, on the eve of a general election and Boris’s bid for the Tory leadership, he himself has a touch of “the Churchill Factor”. And in any case, Churchill has now joined the trio of subjects, making it a quartet, who can be relied on to do superbly as biographical choices, the others being Napoleon, Byron, and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Not that Boris has much in common with Churchill, beginning with hair — or lack/plenitude of it. The Dukes of Marlborough found it hard to hang on to their hair — the founder wore a wig, even at the battle of Malplaquet, I believe — and Churchill lost his early. It had been red, or rather “the colour of a bronze putter”, as Lord Curzon sniffily put it. Churchill was not sorry to see it go, red-haired leaders always having had trouble with their party, Peel and Baldwin being other instances.

Then again, Churchill, though a Tory Democrat like his father, and not above stooping to Tory demagogy on occasion, never found it easy to affect the common touch. Born in Blenheim Palace, his natural habitat was (to quote his bitter opponent Nye Bevan) “Aristotle Onassis’s yacht”. Monte Cristo cigars sprung naturally to his jaws, and glasses of Veuve Clicquot (preferably the 1928 vintage which he rated “the best ever crammed into a magnum”) to his lips. He never wore a trilby or a pork-pie, rode a bicycle, smoked a Woodbine, or downed a half-and-half. Boris does all of these kinds of things, effortlessly.

There is also a sharp difference in mental calibre. Churchill was a genius, at times, with a natural wit, profound long sight, a disturbingly acute sense of danger and wonderful word-play. But a super-high IQ? A first class brain, a natural for a double-first, an All Souls Prizeman? I wonder. Anthony Kenny, sometime Master of Balliol, supposedly Oxford’s cleverest college, told me: “In all the years I was Master, Boris was by far the most intelligent undergraduate.” No one would have said this of Churchill, though Dr Jowett would doubtless have spotted the other gifts.

Churchill could be, and often was, a bad judge of character, as his most loyal critic, Clementine, was to lament. He stuck to the lunatic Admiral Fisher. He backed the scientific judgment of “the Prof” (Frederick Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, who underestimated the potential of nuclear weapons). Bad picking was at the root of the Dardanelles disaster. Trusting Beaverbrook often got him into messes. Glamorising King Edward VIII, failing to spot he was no good and never would be anything but a shit, led to the only occasion when Churchill was physically howled down in the House of Commons, and might have ended his career at a blow. Boris does not make these kinds of mistakes.

Reading his book, noting his admiration for Churchill but also his selection of the Churchillian qualities he chooses to praise, I am led to the conclusion that he has most in common not with Churchill but with Lloyd George. It is significant that there is comparatively little mention of Lloyd George in The Churchill Factor. It is as though Boris is subconsciously avoiding the subject. But anyone who studies the history of Britain in the first half of the 20th century cannot avoid answering the question: who was the greater man, Churchill or Lloyd George? I used to discuss this point, and their relationship in general, with Lord Boothby. He had known them both, in some ways very well, even intimately. He was never in any doubt that Lloyd George was the greater man. I don’t think I agree at all. But the point is worth considering.

Bob Boothby told me that in the mid-1920s, when Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer, riding high again after all the turmoil and failures of the First World War, and Lloyd George was an ex-Prime Minister who had fallen forever, so it seemed, he sought to bring them together. He was then Churchill’s PPS. Churchill agreed to the meeting, in the Chancellor’s room at the House — his home ground, as it were — and Bob escorted the Welsh Wizard there, and left them alone. Two hours later, Churchill summoned Bob by sounding his bell. He found him alone. Lloyd George had gone, taking the light with him: the room was shrouded in gathering dusk, and Churchill in the deepest gloom. For a long time, no one spoke. Then Churchill said: “I thought we would meet as equals. But — no. From start to finish, it was just as it had always been. Master and slave.” (This story is sometimes told as “Master and Servant”, but “slave” is the word Bob actually used in telling it to me, and it has the authentic Churchillian ring.)

The truth is that Churchill, in private conclave such as Cabinet meetings, dominated by monologue. But if this was denied him, and Lloyd George always did deny it, then he could not do dialogue. Lloyd George could. Indeed, he was at his best in dialogue or any intimate discussion between razor-sharp minds. Lloyd George won most of his key battles, political and military, in dialogue, and this is an important point which links him to Boris, who comes across most impressively when talking to a few chums as equals.

More generally, though, I think I would much prefer to be compared with Lloyd George than with Churchill. The latter was an incorrigible egoist, and his egoism sometimes got in the way of his genius, and even of his common sense. This was a point made to me by Bob Boothby, when he insisted that Lloyd George was, on the whole, a better war leader than Churchill. It was corroborated, interestingly enough, by the evidence of Clem Attlee, who told me that Churchill’s egoism and monologues often made Cabinet meetings useless when they were most needed to take well-argued decisions on urgent matters. That was why some of the shrewder Cabinet ministers, and staff chiefs like Alanbrooke, Cunningham and top foreign military men like Eisenhower and Marshall, preferred Attlee to be in charge when Churchill was absent. He had a sense of business.

Yes — that is the point. Churchill lacked a business sense. Lloyd George had it. And I think Boris has it too. He has got things done in London by using business criteria, and I believe he can bring the same quality to bear at Number Ten. That is what we shall find out in the course of the year to come. Or will we? One of the biggest objections to a Labour victory next May is that it may make impossible a Boris Johnson premiership, and thus prevent us for the foreseeable future from experiencing another dose of Churchill, or of Lloyd George, or of something entirely different and, perhaps in its own way, just as exhilarating.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"