January 15, 2022

A grey, chilly morning in the heart of London. Amid intense speculation, the Conservatives have gathered to discuss the Prime Minister’s future. Nobody doubts that he’s a character, a winner, a showman with the common touch. But there have simply been too many scandals, too many broken promises, too many lies.

And as one speaker after another rises to his feet, a consensus begins to emerge. Enough is enough. The man has served his purpose. It is time to be rid of him, and for the Conservatives to rediscover what they really stand for.

That was the scene on 19 October 1922, when Conservative MPs met at the Carlton Club to decide whether they should fight the next election in coalition with the Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George. It’s often said that the 1922 Committee, the parliamentary caucus of all Conservative backbenchers, takes its name from that meeting. That’s not entirely accurate: in reality the caucus takes its name from a dining club organised by Tory MPs who won their seats in the election that followed. But the claim does represent a kind of symbolic truth.

That meeting in October 1922 created not merely the modern Conservative Party, but the modern British political landscape. And at the centre of the drama was a man who wasn’t even there that morning. A man with wandering hands and slippery principles; a populist, a philanderer, a crowd-pleaser and adventurer; a clever, showy, utterly untrustworthy man, a proven election-winner whose own friends couldn’t trust a word he said. Yes, it’s Boris Lloyd George!

Since Lloyd George’s admirers are usually found at the liberal end of the spectrum, I imagine many of them will be displeased by the comparison. It’s true that Lloyd George — born in 1863, brought up speaking Welsh, steeped in the Baptist faith of his native land — came from a relatively humble background, never went to Eton, was a brilliantly fluent speaker and had an extraordinary appetite for hard work. And in his early days he exhibited an admirable commitment to all kinds of unfashionable causes — that is, until he sold out.

But more than any other twentieth-century PM, the last Liberal premier embodied the ambition, promiscuity and shameless indifference to rules and conventions that have driven Boris Johnson’s critics mad. Boris might be a mountebank, but Lloyd George was the mountebank’s mountebank.

Had he been prime minister during the Covid pandemic, would he have held parties at Number 10? The answer is obvious. He wouldn’t just have invited you to a party, he’d have sold you a peerage and made a move on your wife while you were still hanging up your coat.

Lloyd George was brilliantly funny. He was patriotic. He had the common touch. He was also, to quote Max Hastings on his modern-day successor, a “cavorting charlatan”, a “bully”, a “rogue” and a “scoundrel”, who “would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade”. And like Boris, he never hid it; quite the reverse. “My supreme idea is to get on,” he wrote to his future wife, Maggie Owen, during their courtship. “I am prepared to thrust even love itself under the wheels of my Juggernaut if it obstructs the way.” He meant every word.

According to one of his own aides, Lloyd George was “mental on matters of sex. In his view, a man and a woman could not possibly be friends without sexual intercourse.” That sounds familiar. Like Boris, he could never be entirely sure how many children he had. Within months of his marriage to the stolid and long-suffering Maggie, he had already strayed, impregnating a Liberal activist known only as Mrs J.

Not content with also impregnating his wife’s cousin Kitty, he also had affairs with “Mrs Tim” who was married to his friend Timothy Davies, as well as Julia Henry, another Liberal MP’s wife. He also carried on for decades with his secretary, Frances Stevenson, whom he forced to have at least two abortions. And there were many more — so many that nobody has ever produced a definitive count.

At the time, people joked that Lloyd George had a child in every town in Britain. The story goes that one day his son Dick went into a pub and fell into conversation with a stranger who looked just like him. The stranger eventually confessed that Lloyd George was indeed his father, and was secretly paying him £400 a year. To cap it all, some biographers suggest that Lloyd George also slept with Dick’s troubled wife, Roberta — and this when he was well into his sixties! By these standards, even Boris seems a paragon of fidelity.

Lloyd George’s Conservative coalition partners knew all this, of course. But they tolerated it, because he was a winner. They had first embraced him in December 1916, amid the slaughter of the Great War, when he knifed his own party leader, Herbert Henry Asquith, to get his hands on the premiership. That allowed him to build a reputation as the “Man Who Won the War”, and two years later he led the coalition to a thumping 506-seat victory in the 1918 general election.

Now Lloyd George seemed unassailable, a born winner. Faced with a newly resurgent Labour Party, he had slain the dragon of socialism and reached out to middle-class and working-class voters alike. The electoral map was splashed with coalition blue and yellow, including great swathes of industrial northern England. In Northumberland, for example, Lloyd George’s ultra-patriotic message hit home in seat after seat, including all three seats in Newcastle. The Tories had even roared to victory in Hartlepool.

For a time Lloyd George could do no wrong. There was talk of a historic realignment, a seismic reordering of the political landscape. The Tory leader, the feeble Austen Chamberlain, made no secret of his belief that the future lay in a fusion of their two parties. Yet even at this stage the seeds of Lloyd George’s downfall — both political and personal — had been sown.

Once again, the parallels between past and present could hardly be more striking. Just as Boris Johnson capitalised on Brexit, Lloyd George had capitalised on victory on the Western Front. But the result was an electoral coalition that was much uneasier and shallower than it looked. And as the months passed, the problems mounted.

Lloyd George’s equivalent of levelling up was his promise to find jobs and build homes for Britain’s returning servicemen. Then, as now, there was a lot of talk and not much action. What was even more dangerous, though, was the growing sense that the Tories were losing touch with their low-tax, small-state principles.

By the turn of 1920 Lord Rothermere, co-founder of the Daily Mail, was already demanding that the government slash spending by half and let private enterprise flourish once again. A year later Rothermere founded the Anti-Waste League. Then, in June 1921, an Anti-Waste candidate comfortably beat his Tory rival in the Westminster St George’s by-election.

By now the Tories were becoming seriously worried. Under their populist Prime Minister, what did they stand for? What had happened to their soul?

Next came a wave of scandals — not parties, but peerages. Governments had always rewarded their supporters with honours, but Lloyd George carried it to an extreme. In six years after 1916 he sold a staggering 1,500 knighthoods and 91 peerages, auctioned to party donors by his friend, the theatrical impresario Maundy Gregory. According to Gregory’s critics, he literally had a tariff, pricing knighthoods at £10,000, baronetcies at £30,000 and peerages at £50,000.

Even to the most port-soaked Tory squire, this seemed pretty indefensible. By the summer of 1922 the pressure was almost intolerable. On 2 July more than 200 MPs demanded a parliamentary investigation into the peerage scandal, and five junior ministers threatened to resign unless Lloyd George agreed. Grudgingly he gave way.

But the real trigger for the collapse of his position, oddly, wasn’t spending, or peerages, or even Lloyd George’s sordid personal morality. It was Turkey.

Today the Chanak crisis, which brought Britain to the brink of war with Mustafa Kemal’s Turkey, is almost completely forgotten. In essence it was the epilogue of the First World War, which had left British and French troops in control of Constantinople and ignited a horrifically bloody conflict over the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Right from the start, Lloyd George had enthusiastically backed the Greeks, who had pushed inland deep into Anatolia.

But by the summer of 1922 the Greeks were in headlong retreat. Even as the Tories were getting agitated about Lloyd George’s peerages, his erstwhile allies were falling back towards the Aegean coast. On 9 September Kemal’s cavalry entered Smyrna. Within two weeks the city was in ashes, consumed by a fire that cost an estimated 100,000 lives.

Now the Turkish commander turned his attention towards Constantinople, still guarded by a British garrison. Backed by the reliably bloodthirsty Winston Churchill, who had learned absolutely nothing from the debacle at Gallipoli, Lloyd George prepared for war — and, crucially, an election. His message to the country, he decided, would be simple: “Keep the Turk out of Europe.”

This, then, was the cue for that famous meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club on 19 October. And the crucial intervention came from a man who might have been designed specifically as the St George to Lloyd George’s dragon.

Stanley Baldwin, MP for Bewdley, ironmaster’s son, was decent, self-effacing and utterly honest, the very soul of small-c conservative respectability. Baldwin didn’t flog peerages. Almost incredibly, by today’s standards, he had donated a fifth of his family fortune to pay off the national debt — and done so anonymously, without a thought of political gain. As for molesting other MPs’ wives, the thought would never have occurred to him. True, as a boy he had almost been expelled from Harrow for circulating Victorian pornography. But a more faithful and loving husband was nowhere to be found.

Like many other Tory MPs, Baldwin was horrified by the idea of war with Turkey. Indeed, even though he sat in the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, he was horrified by Lloyd George in general, calling him a “corrupter of public life”. “I am sick of it,” he wrote privately. “I want a clearer atmosphere.”

And now, quietly, devastatingly, Baldwin plunged in the knife. Lloyd George, he told his colleagues, had been called a “dynamic force, and I accept those words. He is a dynamic force, and it is from that very fact that our troubles, in our opinion, arise. A dynamic force is a very terrible thing; it may crush you.” If they went into an election with Lloyd George as their leader, he said, “the old Conservative Party” would be “smashed to atoms and lost in ruins”.

And with that, political history changed. The Tory MPs voted by 187 to 87 to scrap the coalition. To put it another way, they chose boring competence over flamboyant charlatanry — and it worked. A few weeks later, under the doggedly serious Andrew Bonar Law, they won a massive majority in their own right, condemning the Liberals to perennial irrelevance.

As for Baldwin, he succeeded Law six months later, served three times as Prime Minister and became the unheralded father of modern British politics, which he successfully presented as a straight choice between moderate conservatism and radical socialism. And Lloyd George? He never held office again.

So what’s the lesson? Well, it seems pretty unlikely that Boris Johnson’s premiership will end with an argument about war with Turkey. But it will end, and probably sooner rather than later. When a charismatic, unprincipled populist loses his sheen, he has little to fall back on, especially if his colleagues are already questioning his political direction.

And if history’s any guide, the next Tory leader will probably be Boris’s polar opposite. Somebody earnest, dutiful and hard-working, the last person you’d ever expect to throw a lockdown-busting bash. Maybe somebody who, like Bonar Law, has already had a go at leading the party. and fancies another crack. Somebody a bit boring.

What’s Theresa May up to these days?

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Dominic Sandbrook discusses the politics of 1922 on the latest episode of his podcast The Rest is History — which also features his spectacular impersonation of Winston Churchill.

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