The nation was in a state of crisis. Entering through the door of 10 Downing Street as the new Prime Minister was one of the most charismatic politicians Britain had seen for decades. This man was David Lloyd George. A leading Liberal politician, he replaced his party leader Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916 at the height of the First World War. The government then being fiercely divided in the wake of the continued stalemate and the threat of the breakup of the cross-party wartime coalition.
The same description could almost as easily be applied to Boris Johnson’s entry into office as Prime Minister in July 2019. During his time in British politics, he has come to develop his own idiosyncratic brand, which has made him instantly recognisable to the average voter. He too entered Downing Street at a time of nationwide political crisis after Theresa May and Parliament failed to pass a deal for leaving the European Union.
Johnson has made no secret of his penchant for Winston Churchill, even authoring a biography of his political hero, but perhaps his parallels to Churchill’s one time political ally and friend, Lloyd George, are even more striking.
Instantly on a personal level, the similarity is evident. Both men share colourful private lives, with the continued mystery surrounding the number of Johnson’s children and Lloyd George’s affairs with numerous women, most notably his long-time mistress and secretary, Frances Stevenson. A relationship which resulted in two abortions and the birth of an illegitimate daughter. Equally, both during their time in office have faced accusations of ‘sleaze’ from Johnson’s awarding of Covid contracts and life peerages to Lloyd George’s ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal in the 1920s, where knighthoods, baronetcies and peerages were sold for the appropriate contribution to Lloyd George’s personal political fund.
Furthermore, perhaps most potently for us in the aftermath of Covid-19, both served as Prime Minister during the time of a global pandemic. As the First World War neared its close in 1918, Spanish Flu began to rage across Europe. Lloyd George caught the virus in September 1918 in the early stages of the pandemic, at the age of fifty-five. He experienced a weeklong fever, requiring a respirator for breathing. His condition was later described by his valet as ‘touch and go’. Lloyd George would go on to make a full recovery, but the pandemic would cost 228,000 lives in Britain alone. Johnson similarly caught Covid-19 in the pandemic’s early stages , coincidentally also at the age of fifty-five. Requiring treatment in a hospital intensive care unit, he then spent two weeks recuperating at the prime ministerial country retreat, Chequers.
In political terms, the comparisons also are striking. Both men have changed their political ideologies to suit their agendas. Once seen as a small state liberal, Johnson is now pursuing a policy of state expansion in everything from the NHS and social care to education and other public services, as outlined in the government’s most recent Budget. Taxes, moreover, are set to reach their highest level since the Second World War. It is with this agenda he hopes to continue to hold the support of Red Wall voters in the North. Lloyd George, equally, in the later stages of his political career shifted his views in the hopes of reviving the Liberal Party. Originally as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Asquith’s government, he spearheaded the introduction of a series of ad hoc social policies, including the establishment of labour exchanges, old age pensions and National Insurance, to help deal with the problems of poverty and unemployment. Yet by the 1929 general election, with the Liberal Party’s fortunes fading, Lloyd George put forward a new, radical campaign, ‘We Can Conquer Unemployment’, in a shift towards the left. In the hope of attracting new voters, he promised to return unemployment to normal levels within one year through a programme of public works using the unemployed to build houses, construct new roads and extend telephone lines.
However, perhaps the most interesting parallel between Johnson and Lloyd George is the latter’s role in the foundation of the welfare state to tackle poverty and Johnson’s stated aim to raise living standards. Lloyd George was a committed ‘New Liberal’, who led his party to ‘wage implacable warfare on poverty and squalidness’, most notably through his 1909 ‘People’s Budget’. Johnson, equally, is claiming to pursue a similar vision to ‘level up’ standards across the United Kingdom and now after the pandemic to ‘Build Back Better’, a slogan which echoes the spirit of Lloyd George’s 1918 election promise to build ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ at the end of the First World War. Citing in recent speeches the need to tackle regional differences in key issues like life expectancy, Johnson’s aim is beginning to emerge through his plans for greater investment in local communities, the creation of a ‘National Skills Fund’, the introduction of Free Ports and support for major infrastructure projects like HS2. Though yet to be seen in practice, it is in this stated ambition to ‘level up’ and ‘Build Back Better’ that the parallel between Boris Johnson and Lloyd George’s government policies are perhaps most interesting and unusual.