27 May 2022

Why comparisons between Boris Johnson and Winston Churchill aren’t as ridiculous as you think


‘The final lines of the speech were as predictable as they were perfect. Standing in front of a heaving, joyous Maidan Square, Volodymyr Zelensky proudly by his side, Boris Johnson swept his arm over the crowd as he boomed ‘…and this has been your Finest Hour.’ 

President Biden beamed. President Macron and Chancellor Scholz were watching it at home on television. Meanwhile news was breaking of more pro democracy demonstrations in Tehran and Damascus, British and American flags prominently displayed, as the new government in Moscow made it clear that it no longer would, or could, militarily support its allies in the Middle East. The Prime Minister later returned to London to a record opinion poll lead, just weeks before the general election. His rival Lisa Nandy, a year into the role after Keir Starmer’s ‘beergate’ resignation, was last night scrambling to respond to what most pundits are calling Britain’s greatest foreign policy triumph since the Falklands War.’

Of course that could never happen because, according to some, Boris Johnson is the most terrible human being ever to hold office in this or any country. There are those, like Dominic Cummings, who regard him as a wonky shopping trolley, with no interest in detail or consistency, careering wildly from disaster to disaster. A man who, in the carefully weighted words of Labour elder statesman, Andy McDonald, led the nation so badly during the Covid pandemic that he has copious amounts of ‘blood on his filthy privileged hands’.

The reality is politics is a lot more messy and contradictory then we sometimes like to think.  And maybe leaders with flawed personalities and a record of failure can have moments of greatness within them. Take, for example, Winston Spencer Churchill.

June 4th will be the 82nd anniversary of his Finest Hour speech. Delivered on the final day of the Dunkirk evacuation and just weeks before the Battle of Britain, it was an attempt to steady the nation and calm international opinion at a moment of unprecedented jeopardy.  But many of the MPs listening to it were far from convinced. 

Churchill had only been in power for 25 days and was already showing signs of the behavior that his critics had warned about. There were late night drinking and brainstorming sessions with his cronies, the Beaverbooks and the Brackens. The ‘Crazy gang’ some called them. Inspired by the atmosphere and the alcohol, Churchill’s mind would race, leaping from topic to topic, and a plethora of memos, directives and letters would emerge at all hours.

The sceptics – and initially that included key members of his own staff – thought him unstable and impetuous, and were painfully aware of his track record. Here’s how one historian (OK me) tried to capture public feeling:

‘Omdurman and Mafeking, Tonypandy and the Dardanelles, as a Liberal Home Secretary and a Tory imperialist, Churchill had been part of British life for as long as most people could remember. Good old Winston, a man from a lost world with his Edwardian clothes and top hats, his brandy and his funny old cigars. For much of the 1930s he’d been a bit of a joke – going on and on with his big red face about India and always calling for more battleships and warplanes and wanting to fight Germany all over again. And as he slipped towards a dyspeptic, disappointed old age, out of favour and out of office, he was mainly remembered, fairly or not, for sending troops to Welsh mining towns and men to die on the beaches of Gallipoli.’ 

The nearest thing Churchill had to a Dominic Cummings was General Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff between 1941 and 1945.  Brook never used the term ‘shopping trolley’, but he may as well have done:

‘He knows no details, has only got half the picture in his mind, talks absurdities and makes my blood boil to listen to his nonsense. (People) have no idea what a public menace he is and has been throughout the war’

 ‘Winston was wandering and meandering about, failing to grip his Cabinet and never coming to any decisions. I shudder to think where we are going with him as leader! Why cannot big men know when to close their career?’

The great leader steadying and revitalizing the nation, the man boy playing soldiers – Churchill was both and, to be fair, Viscount Alanbrooke (as he became) paid fulsome tribute to one even when the other repeatedly drove him to a pencil-snapping fury. 

I’m no Andy McDonald but I do think Boris Johnson has made many mistakes. The barmy on-off attempt to save Owen Paterson.  The dismal early months of the pandemic when he talked of squashing sombreros while people were dying in care homes. The Winter 2020 lockdown which was – to me – an agonising slow motion car crash of hasty half measures as the wave remorselessly built.

But then there’s Ukraine. We don’t yet know the full story but there have been plenty of hints to the better-connected defense correspondents that Britain’s military role has been critical, especially in the early weeks. It was not a given that the UK would rush anti tank missiles to Ukraine at a time when most Western leaders were more interested in peace talks. Somebody had to push that decision through. Ben Wallace was no doubt central but these things don’t happen without an energetic shove from Downing Street. 

We also don’t know – yet – about how much ‘on the ground’ (or just across the border) surveillance and targeting help came from UK Special Forces. But from the furious comments about Britain being made on Putin’s favourite TV stations, I suggest there was, and is, a lot of that going on. In future America’s role will be more important, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that Britain – that is Boris Johnson’s Britain – directly helped prevent the rapid fall of Kyiv and the widely expected (in Paris and Berlin) triumph of Putin’s gangster state.  A Finest Hour indeed. 

Both Johnson and Churchill made numerous errors of judgment throughout their careers, driven by deep failings in character. And yet while a romantic, impetuous flourish is precisely not what you need to manage a pandemic, perhaps it is when faced with the chance to save a European democracy (while others are floundering and equivocating).  

And can anyone imagine careful Keir Starmer rushing those weapons through? Or even Theresa May.

Churchill accepted his overwhelming defeat in 1945 with a surprising amount of good grace. I think he understood that his style of leadership was not what the country wanted or needed anymore. Certainly few voters wanted to restore the world that he represented. 

It’s possible Johnson will have a similiar fate in 2024, but I wouldn’t entirely rule out another ending to the story – a shopping trolley rather than a Russian tank rolling straight into Maidan Square.

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Phil Craig is writing a book on 1945. His previous WW2 histories – Finest Hour and End of the Beginning – are published by Hodder and Stoughton.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.