The political master eclipsed by his shadow

May 11, 2007

Could Brown make more of an impact than Blair? A historical parallel suggests it's not impossible, says Richard Toye

The Prime Minister left office amid allegations of war-mongering and with his name tainted by an honours scandal - yet, given his domestic achievements and electoral record, he must have felt that his reputation would continue to overshadow that of the moody, ambitious and unloved colleague who longed to succeed him. Yet today, David Lloyd George is all but forgotten, whereas Winston Churchill is widely seen as the epitome of courage and statesmanship. Could it turn out to be the same with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown?

The parallels between the two pairs of men are intriguing. Churchill joined the Liberal Party in 1904, and this marked the start of his political partnership - and rivalry - with Lloyd George. In spite of frequent bitter disagreements in private, they presented to the outside world a picture of an idealised political friendship in which, much as they might differ on matters of policy, their affection for one another never wavered. It was a politically useful myth.

Blair and Brown, of course, have attempted something similar. Blair has described Brown as "a personal friend for 20 years and the best chancellor this country has ever had"; Brown calls Blair "a great guy" for whom he has "an enormous amount of respect". They have not, however, succeeded in persuading the public of this in the way that Churchill and Lloyd George did.

Much of the explanation for this lies in the way the media has treated the relationship. In 1913-14, Lloyd George (as Chancellor) and Churchill (as First Lord of the Admiralty) fell out over the issue of naval expenditure.

At first, Lloyd George thought he had struck a new Labour-style bargain with his colleague - "he has agreed to support my land policy with which he is not in sympathy, and I have agreed to give him more money for the Navy"

- but the agreement broke down. Soon, he was claiming that Churchill had "acted disgracefully" and that he was guilty of "gross negligence and extravagance". He told all this to the press magnate George Riddell, who wrote it down in his diary - but not in his newspapers. By contrast, Blair's private criticisms of Brown, and vice versa, have not stayed private long. Yet even Lloyd George and Churchill did not have things all their own way. "On fundamental issues the two ministers are in complete antagonism," observed the Daily Mail , that bugbear of radicalism, in 1914.

Lloyd George and Churchill even had their own version of the "Granita deal" - that is to say, a deal that one of them thought existed and the other did not. Before the First World War, Churchill offered strong support to Lloyd George during the Marconi scandal, in which the latter was accused of financial impropriety. When, in 1915, Churchill was in political trouble he felt that Lloyd George did not repay the favour: "notwithstanding how I stood by him in Marconi days, he did nothing to help me. He never hesitates to sacrifice a friend if he stands in the way of his game." It is no secret that Brown has likewise entertained resentment against Blair for failing to fulfil what he believed was a commitment to hand over the premiership at an early stage. He, like Churchill, has perhaps been guilty of ignoring the political realities that override personal factors in such cases.

The parallels between Lloyd George and Blair appear strong. In office, both combined personal charm and rhetorical skill with reforming ambition but appeared to many to be ideologically rootless. Lloyd George was a Liberal Prime Minister governing in coalition with Conservatives; Blair has often seemed like a Liberal Prime Minister governing in coalition with Labour.

The Brown-Churchill comparison may - at the moment - seem far less obvious.

But Sir Andrew Turnbull - the former civil servant who denounced Brown's "Stalinist ruthlessness" - might feel some sympathy for Sir Francis Hopwood, an official who, in 1907, complained of Churchill's "restless energy", "lack of moral perception" and habits of intrigue. For many years, Churchill was widely seen as unreliable, self-centred and incapable of listening. There were even those who - before 1940 - thought his speeches empty and bombastic in spite of their brilliance.

We should not, of course, overstate the similarities. When Lloyd George resigned in 1922, Churchill was in no position to succeed him. He had to wait another 18 years before he got the keys to 10 Downing Street. And it is certainly to be hoped that, if Brown does become Prime Minister, this can be achieved without the Germans first invading Norway. But it may well be that, in time, Brown's star will outshine Blair's, as Churchill's now does that of Lloyd George. That will depend, in part, on their respective abilities to write their own versions of events into the history books. Reputations may be fickle, but they are not random.

Richard Toye is a lecturer in history at Cambridge University and author of Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness , published by Macmillan, £25 (reviewed in next week's issue).

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