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Boris as Churchill - Meet Sir Winston Johnson

by Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-03-29 at 21.46.39 I was rummaging through Max Hastings's "Finest Years, Churchill as Warlord", when the following snagged my attention like a wire spike catching a ball of tumbleweed -

" 'Working in H[arry] H[opkin']'s cabin this morning,' Corporal Geoffrey Green wrote in his diary, '& WSC came in wearing only pyjama coat & cigar - no pants - grinned at us and said "good morning" - too amazed to reply properly!' The ship's storerooms were packed with delicacies from Fortnum & Mason, together with ninety grouse, killed ahead of the shooting season to provide a treat for the prime minister's exalted guests."

Which modern politician was this brief sketch reminding me of - the slapdash attire, the good humour, the extravagance, the zest for life?  A Conservative, surely - like Churchill himself.  Let's see, then:  Andrew Lansley?  Surely not.  Ken Clarke?  Closer, but not quite.  Then I stumbled across this -

"I see advancing upon all this in hideous onslaught the Nazi war machine, with its clanking, heel-clicking Prussian officers, its crafty expert agents from the cowing and tying down of a dozen countries.  I see also the dull, drilled, docile, brutish masses of the Hun soldiery plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts.  I see the German bombers and fighters in the sky, still smarting from many a British whipping, delighted to find what they believe is an easier and safer prey."

Where had I heard or read recently the same bombastic, hyberbolic rhetoric - though usually deployed for comic rather than serious effect?  Michael Gove?  I paused for thought.  And then found this -

"[Churchill] is a Tory, an imperialist, and has been a strike-breaker and Red-baiter; and yet, when he tours the slums of London, old women say: 'God bless you, Winnie.' "

Iain Duncan Smith, arriving in Easterhouse?  The torment of lost memory was maddening - and then, in a flash of inspiration, I had my answer.  Boris Churchill!  Sir Winston Johnson!

Now I know that the comparison seems absurd, for the following reasons and probably more:

  • Churchill was a great war leader.  Boris - however talented a politician, scintillating a writer, and exuberant a personality - is merely the Mayor of London.  He hasn't helped to deliver a continent from tyranny or embodied the spirit of a nation.
  • Churchill fought for causes.  Boris treats them warily.  Churchill struggled against his party over Indian home rule and was a lonely voice on appeasement.  Boris tends to dip in and out of controversial waters rather than swim against the stream.  He made his journalistic name as a critic of the EU, but has never come out for withdrawal.  He was a climate change sceptic before campaigning for the Mayoralty, but took a more orthodox view afterwards and since his election.
  • Churchill intervened.  Boris delegates.  As Hastings writes, "Churchill believed himself exceptionally fitted for the direction of armies, navies and air forces.  He perceived no barrier to such a role in the fact that he possessed neither military staff training nor experience of higher field command."  In short, Churchill meddled all the time, at least as a wartime Prime Minister.  Boris, however, tends to delegate administration to his subordinates, and lean on super-competent deputies: Sir Simon Milton in London, Stuart Reid on his old hunting-ground, the Spectator.
  • Churchill liked confrontation.  Boris prefers consensus.  Bolsheviks, nazis, striking miners, criminals at bay in Sidney Street...Churchill, the former solider, battled with them all, and seemed to relish it.  Boris, for all his look-at-me egotism and get-out-of-my-way competitiveness, dislikes confrontation.  Read the small print carefully when he appears to strike a unyielding stance, because there's usually some get-out clause behind the uncompromising headline.  (Study this piece, for example, about new laws against the unions.)
  • Churchill was unpopular.  Boris is popular.  Viewed against the backdrop of World War Two, Churchill's reputation looks unchallengeable.  It wasn't always that way, despite the East End scene quoted above.  He was hated and reviled in some quarters as a turncoat, an adventurer, a reactionary, an imperialst and an inveterate warmonger.  By contast, Boris uses humour to defuse opposition - and is thus able, like the old Heineken ad, to reach parts of the electorate that other Conservative politicians don't reach (though some claim that his appeal is limited to the south).

Indeed, the more one thinks about it, the more Boris has become a conventional politician: fighting London's corner on the City and Crossrail; building as big a coalition as possible to get re-elected; delivering an "eye-catching initiative" with which he can be personally associated (the bicycle scheme), swooping in menacingly, like one of Hitchcock's birds, whenever things get a bit difficult for the Prime Minister (for example, see here and here and here).  Unlike Churchill, he doesn't take risks, break cover, stick his political neck out.  Even that swashbuckling attack on Ed Miliand fitted a political purpose.

And yet the comparison won't stop tugging my elbow.  Consider -

  • The popular journalism and books.  (Imagine what Churchill would have done with modern video and TV.)
  • The jokes.  (See, for example and almost at random, here and here.)
  • The trademarks.  (Churchill's cigar; Boris's hair.)
  • The sense of independence from party.  Churchill not only ratted but re-ratted, as he put it, leaving the Conservatives for the Liberals, only to return again.  Boris has always been a conservative, with libertarian instincts and a One Nation flavour, but has never been part of the Party establishment, of Team Cameron, of any particular group or faction.  A.J.P Taylor wrote of Churchill that "essentially, he stood alone: neither Tory nor Liberal, aristocrat nor democrat, simply Winston Churchill the statesman".  Much the same can be said of Boris Johnson the politician.
  • The distrust he provokes among his own colleagues. Churchill had no strong constituency of support in his own party in the years running up to 1939.  Boris is extremely popular among the members, and put on early at party conferences to "cheer the troops".  But he certainly had no body of support in the Conservative Parliamentary Party.  It was partly for this reason that - frustrated by his non-appointment by David Cameron to the Shadow Cabinet - he quit the Commons to contest the London Mayoralty.

Now where on earth, you may well ask, does all this lead?  So we have one politician who may be a bit like another.  But as well compare Cameron to Pitt the Younger or Ed Miliband to George Lansbury, for all the use it does.  Leave these parlour games to Niall Ferguson, who does them better in any event.

Perhaps, but I think there's a point to the exercise.

Boris faces a hazardous re-election campaign.  True, Labour have put up an opponent who's the ghost of his old self.  But Livingstone was only some 100,000 votes behind in 2008, and the Government ought to be deep in the trough of mid-term unpopularity by next May.  The Mayor may well lose out.

What then?

I can't imagine Boris meekly retiring to novels, memoirs and TV shows.  He would surely seek to return to the Commons.  Even a year ago, I'd have laughed at the idea of Boris as Party leader.  But he's knuckled down as Mayor, got serious - up to a point - and is doing a good, solid, workmanlike job.  I now take it very seriously indeed.

The Parliamentary Party didn't want Churchill as leader.  In the end, it had to have him because of a combination of force of personality and the turn of events - and the one working upon the other.  If we win in 2015, forget about a Boris moment.  But if we don't, have a small flutter on a Churchillian return.


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