LAST week Kathy Gyngell asked TCW readers: Is Boris Johnson the new Churchill? This is my attempt at an answer.
Physically, they are alike: they both have the bulldog body shape. Their backgrounds appear similar, both hailing from the world of letters before moving into politics. But the similarity does not quite hold up.
Churchill has been rightly immortalised for his leadership role in an hour of desperate need. Had Halifax or Butler become Prime Minister in 1940, it is likely Britain would have submitted to an armistice dictated by Nazi Germany. The hour of desperate need today is not a country defeated on the Continent, fearing invasion and facing bankruptcy, but a refusal by elected politicians, appointed officials and a raft of individuals with covert vested interests to acknowledge and implement the outcome of the largest democratic exercise in British history. The challenge is a degree lower. Churchill also had the advantage of having cross-party support for his Victory policy. Boris’s Brexit policy faces these vested interests, plus an opportunist Marxist snapping at his heels. Churchill’s Britain was for the most part united in war against Germany. Boris’s Britain is at war with itself.
In addition to his career in journalism, Churchill served in the British Army and fought in wars. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he personally supervised the fighting in Antwerp in 1914. He was a fanatic about modern technology, eager to learn to fly. He was the inspiration behind realising the tank and the Mulberry floating harbour. Boris has not shown similar inclination for invention or risking bullets and artillery.
Boris has written a book about Churchill. Churchill, no longer being with us, has not returned the compliment. In fact Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames has quite a low opinion of Boris. Churchill had been in the top tier of successive governments, serving as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in addition to First Lord of the Admiralty. Like Boris he had some time in the wilderness. Boris’s rise was through beating the Blairites’ dominance of the media of the 1990s and 2000s to be the Conservative with the highest public profile, and leveraging this presence to beat Ken Livingstone twice and become Mayor of London for eight years. Churchill’s reputation had its foundation in his coverage of the Second Boer War and his escape as a prisoner of war.
A better parallel might be Lloyd George, who replaced Asquith as the British war effort seemed to be faltering in 1916. But the point is that no real parallel can be applied, and certainly neither Boris nor his entourage are trying to make the association. It is Donald Trump who has a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office. Boris does not appear to flaunt a similar sculpture in his study in No 10 or office in Parliament.
This is a period of national crisis. The difference is that this crisis has been self-inflicted as a fifth-columnist elite try to find some method to subvert a democratic outcome that voters had been told would be unconditionally respected. Boris Johnson is a crisis Prime Minister. In that respect he does resemble Churchill and Lloyd George, but no two crises are the same.
It remains to be seen whether Johnson will go down in history as a Churchill or a Chamberlain in the narrow context of crisis management. While Boris is no Churchill, and Brexit is no Dunkirk, there is still a Battle of Britain in progress. Also remember that, with immediate national crisis passed, Churchill lost by a landslide his first General Election as Conservative and Unionist leader. Parallels are not always about the good.