Sheila Lawlor is the Director of Politeia, a historian and the author of Churchill and the Politics of War, 1940-41.
In the battle for the Tory leadership there has been one focus for attack: Boris Johnson’s judgement. We’re told he can’t be trusted; he lacks judgement; he is irresponsible, unpredictable. Though politicians and press can be a jealous bunch, the vendetta against Johnson has been in a class of its own. But now, as the contest reaches its close, their attack raises a serious point – which is in Johnson’s favour.
For what Britain needs now is not a safe pair of hands, but a leader who can seize the moment. A leader to bring this country the freedom from the EU for which it voted in 2016, just as in May 1940 Churchill – himself having been written off as a failure and political opportunist – seized his moment. It should be looking for a prime minister who has the head, the heart and the sheer boldness to cast himself in the historic role to rally the nation to win its freedom in the biggest test since that time.
In 1940, Churchill’s CV read like a litany of failures. He had switched parties (twice), causes, allegiances, political tunes. There seemed to be only common thread – opportunism. He had played to the gallery, deployed a language that broke the rules, and time and again misplayed his hand in a bid to move ever closer to the power that eluded him. From being the enfant terrible of his party, Churchill had become a grown-up liability.
Then came the chance of his lifetime.
French and British troops massed in France waited for Hitler’s next move westwards – a stalemate broken only by the disastrous British raid on Narvik. Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister on 10th May, 1940. The same day the ‘real’ war in the west began. Hitler invaded France, Holland and Belgium; German tanks could be at Britain’s doorstep in weeks. Of the two candidates, Lord Halifax, a remote figure in the upper chamber, had the extra disadvantage of being in the Government now under attack. Churchill, in the Commons, could command the support of its critics, Labour MPs and Tory ‘glamour boys’ who had parted with the Government, while also bringing most Conservative MPs, begrudgingly, with him. Besides, he could rally the nation, and what had been the failing of his lifetime, that he loved war, would now play to his strength.
Some things today will be trickier today for the new Tory leader than they were in 1940. The Parliamentary Conservative Party has had little leadership. Out of step with its membership, abandoned by its voters and at odds with the quiet and instinctively conservative sentiment of the nation, the Conservative-led governments and MPs have seemed to sidestep the great issues their party has always stood for – the constitution that protects freedom and order, sound money and a small state – pandering instead to the ragbag of fads and interest groups.
To make matters worse, MPs and ministers waged war on the constitution to defy the authority, derived only from the voters, over Brexit. Not only did the Government fail to honour the country’s Brexit decision, but it made common cause with its opponents.
The question for Party members is whether, as in Churchill’s case, Johnson can move on to shape the future, to be part of the history about which both men have written. Though opponents suspect Johnson, as they did Churchill, of being an opportunist, some nonetheless have turned to him. Is it a leap in the dark? Or is it a choice that in retrospect will appear both inspired and almost inevitable?
Johnson appears to understand what marks out Great Britain, irrespective of politics, irrespective of period: its voters are a quiet, obstinate lot, for whom a certain kind of freedom matters, not that of banners or marches, but the freedom to protect their way of life, their laws, their system of government. The freedom to be left alone. The battle for Brexit is a battle for the country’s, and their own, freedom – the right to determine how they are governed, by whom, whether they can shape the laws that forge and reflect their way of life – something Theresa May’s deal or its variants would not do.
As in 1940, the time has come to finish the job. But, unlike then, people today are angry, and their anger is directed not against the EU, which has only acted in character in seeking to do down a democratic decision, but against their own leaders who wanted to surrender sovereign power to a foreign state.
Had Churchill not become Prime Minister in 1940, the political obituaries would have written him off as too often on the losing side: a failure, in war, a failure in peace, a disreputable politician in coalition, a minister who stoked class hatred in the General Strike, a chancellor who ran down the defences to build houses, not battleships. By contrast, Johnson’s record is more promising, but it is not his record that now matters.
Does he understand that this is a time like no other for this country and its people? Is he, like Churchill, ready to ‘walk with destiny’? The signs are that he is.