The question is not whether Johnson made any mistakes, but whether his failures are unforgivable

1 Feb

Any fool can see, as Sue Gray put it in her “update” published yesterday, that the No 10 parties were the result of “failures of leadership and judgment”. The question is not whether those failures occurred, but whether they are unforgivable.

And that is not a question which can be left either to Gray, or to the Metropolitan Police. It is a question for politicians.

If one is an Opposition MP, the answer is obvious. According to Sir Keir Starmer and Ian Blackford, the Number Ten parties mean Boris Johnson must go.

To the rest of us, the answer depends not on the details of the parties, but on our instinctive sense of right and wrong.

If is not difficult to rationalise condemnation of the Prime Minister, or, if one prefers, mercy. One may, if one wishes, clamber onto one’s high horse, and declare in high-minded tones (cf the Profumo affair) that it is a moral issue.

Much pleasure can be derived from this approach. A warm feeling of self-righteousness courses through one’s veins. How wonderful to be so superior to Johnson. Public life must be purified by casting him into outer darkness.

The other approach, which is the one Johnson himself would take in normal times, is to regard such casting of anathemas as so much humbug, of a kind which comes easily enough to our proud, pious, latter day Puritans, but which anyone with a scintilla of humility should resist.

Yes, there were failures. But who will cast the first stone?

There is something repulsive about presenting oneself as so noble and incorruptible that one can gaze down from a great height on the wicked people in Downing Street, and can condemn Johnson as the wickedest person of all.

That he, and they, got things wrong cannot be denied. They were mortal. They felt sometimes in need of a drink at the end of a long day making life and death decisions where it was easy to arrive at the wrong answer, and to be exposed within a short time as having got it wrong.

Do we imagine that if no drink had been taken within Downing Street, the decisions would have been any better? What a prosy and preposterous proposition.

Behind the criticisms of Johnson lurks an implausible idea of perfection. Immaculate behaviour – no parties, no drink, no cake – would have led to immaculate decisions and an immaculate Prime Minister.

What humbug, what hypocrisy. There never has been a perfect Prime Minister, and never will be. We have to take the least bad Prime Minister on offer. Many people still consider that to be Johnson, when one looks at the various pallid alternatives.

Do we really want, at this moment, to start training up a new Prime Minister? As freeborn Britons we possess, of course, a perfect right to chuck whoever happens to be Prime Minister overboard whenever we wish.

We are not in the appalling position of the Americans, who have fixed terms for their presidents, and have therefore felt driven to impeach or assassinate those of whom they have tired.

Incidentally, many of our best politicians, and best writers, have drunk too much, or what a prude would consider too much.

Would Pitt the Younger have been able to stand up to Napoleon on less than three bottles of port a day?

Percipient readers may already have guessed that this article has been written with the help of some modest amount of alcohol. If the author had been sober, the article would have been duller.

On the other hand, if the author had drunk more than half a bottle of red wine, and a glass of whisky, the article would have been very much better.

Alistair Lexden: On this day – a century ago. How the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty unfolded.

6 Dec

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

“Lock it up carefully”, Lloyd George said to his mistress and secretary, Frances Stevenson, in her room at No 10, as he handed her the British copy of the historic Anglo-Irish Treaty just before 3am on December 6 1921.

Under its terms the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, as created by Pitt the Younger 120 years earlier, came to an end. Only the six counties of the newly formed Northern Ireland were to be permitted to remain within the United Kingdom. Their devolved Parliament, which had been opened by King George V the previous June, was given the power to vote them out of the all-Ireland settlement, based on dominion status, which the Treaty embodied.

The document that was locked away in Downing Street bore the signatures of four members of the British delegation who had negotiated it. They formed a column headed by Lloyd George himself; the others, drawn from his Liberal/ Unionist coalition cabinet, were Austen Chamberlain (son of the great Joe and leader of the Unionist Party, the name then generally preferred by Conservatives), F.E.Smith, Lord Birkenhead (the Unionist Lord Chancellor), and Winston Churchill (who at this point in his career was a Liberal).

Another column listed the signatures of three of their Irish counterparts, headed by Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein in 1905, and followed by the charismatic Michael Collins, the chief organiser of the IRA’s terrorist campaign against Britain, waged from 1919 until July 1921 when a truce was agreed between the two sides. The third Irish signatory, Robert Barton, a Unionist landowner turned Republican and an intimate friend of Collins, was the Sinn Fein delegation’s economic adviser. (Other members of the two delegations, absent from the final discussions, signed later, except for one member of the Irish team whose signature was cut off a menu card and stuck on to the document.)

Never before had British and Irish representatives put their names to a formal agreement of this kind as complete equals. After the signing, which took place at 2.10am, the two sides shook hands for the first time. Trust had replaced the deep suspicion with which they had first regarded each other. Irish leaders, who a few months earlier had been denounced as rebels and murderers, had come to enjoy the respect of the British delegation. Michael Collins had undergone an astonishing transformation from terrorist leader to statesman, gaining the admiration of two prominent members of the British team, Churchill and Birkenhead.

Final agreement on the terms of the Treaty had been reached in two intense negotiating sessions in the Cabinet Room at No 10, which ended two months of wrangling. The first session, which lasted over five hours, began at 3pm on December 5. Lloyd George employed all his formidable political skills to secure a breakthrough in all but one of the key areas that had hitherto defied resolution.

The Irish gained the full fiscal and financial autonomy they craved. The British got what they wanted on defence: the use “in time of war or of strained relations with a foreign power[ of ]such harbour and other facilities as the British Government may require”, combined with the permanent retention of what came to be known as the Treaty Ports (Berehaven, Queenstown and Lough Swilly), major strategic assets which Neville Chamberlain (Austen’s half-brother) was to abandon in a further Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1938 to Churchill’s fury. (Belfast Lough was also included among the Ports, reflecting Republican hopes of winning over Northern Ireland.)

Since the start of negotiations in October, the words of an oath of allegiance which Irish elected representatives would in future be required to swear had been through endless drafts. It was at last settled with a suitably convoluted rigmarole to spare the Irish Republican conscience as much strain as possible: “I will be faithful to His Majesty King George V, his Heirs and Successors by law, in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland and Great Britain, and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations.” This was the first time on which the customary reference to Empire was dropped from an official document.

There remained just one make-or-break issue: Northern Ireland, with its devolved powers over local matters entrusted to it by Westminster earlier in 1921. Sinn Fein were determined to get it into their independent state. Lloyd George was happy to give them all the help he could. In November, he had piled pressure on Sir James Craig, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister. In letters and conversations he tried, with all his accustomed craftiness, to get Craig to accept that he had a patriotic duty to remove the last barrier to peace in Ireland by joining a sovereign all-Ireland Parliament in place of Westminster, while retaining all the devolved powers that Westminster had provided.

The Unionist members of the British delegation did not demur. Not for the last time, Ulster Unionists found that they could not rely on their English Unionist allies in high places (the Party at large was much more vigorous in their defence). Austen Chamberlain said that separate arrangements for six of the nine Ulster counties were “illogical and indefensible.” He thought “ the greatest moral pressure” should be put on Northern Ireland to bring it into a settlement that was “ vital to the Empire”. His Party Chairman, Sir George Younger (later Viscount Younger of Leckie), believed “ Ulster should take some risks and forget some of the past arguments against unity in Ireland.”

These Unionist calls for compromise (surrender would be more accurate) were made against the background of a sustained press campaign, led by The Times, criticising Ulster Unionists for their intransigence. “Ulster blocks the way to peace” was the newspapers’ regular refrain.  Craig described it as “ a press campaign against Ulster without parallel in the history of Great Britain.”

But the Northern Ireland premier was unmoved. He told Lloyd George that a single parliament for Ireland was “ precisely what Ulster has for many years resisted by all the means at her disposal.”

Lloyd George tried another tack in November, concentrating his cunning this time on the leader of the Irish delegation, Arthur Griffith. Here he had much greater success than in his attempts to manoeuvre Craig into an all-Ireland parliament. At a private meeting with Griffith on 13 November, he got the leader of the Irish delegation  to give a personal written pledge that, if Northern Ireland refused to accept an all- Ireland settlement, it would remain under the British Parliament, “ but in this case, it would be necessary to revise the boundary of Northern Ireland. This might be done by a Boundary Commission…to make the boundary conform as closely as possible to the wishes of the people.”

What went unrecorded in the paper was the clear impression given by Lloyd George that Northern Ireland would lose so much territory that it could not survive as a separate entity and a united independent Ireland would as a result come into existence.

During the course of the long afternoon session in Downing Street on December 5, Lloyd George reminded Griffith of what they had agreed. Proof was needed. A frantic search was made of the Prime Minister’s wardrobe, and “eventually an insignificant pocket cast up an envelope and a piece of paper.” On the strength of this written undertaking to establish a Boundary Commission which (as Griffith understood its purpose) would undermine Northern Ireland, the leader of the Irish delegation agreed to sign the Treaty himself, but said that he could not commit his colleagues.

At this, Lloyd George assumed a magnificently melodramatic air. He had told Craig in Belfast to expect news of the outcome of the discussions in Downing Street the following day. That could of course have been done by telephone, but Lloyd George now conjured up an elaborate plan to send the news in writing  to Belfast in an attempt to force a decision out of the other two Irish  delegates.

“Here are the alternative letters which I have prepared, one enclosing Articles of Agreement reached by His Majesty’s Government and yourselves, and the other saying that the Sinn Fein representatives refuse to come within the Empire. If I send this letter it is war, and war within three days. Which letter am I to send? Whichever letter you choose travels by special train to Holyhead, and by destroyer to Belfast. The train is waiting with steam up at Euston…to reach Sir James in time we must know your answer by ten p.m tonight. You can have until then, but no longer, to decide whether you will give peace or war to your country.”

With these impassioned words ringing in their ears, the Irish delegates returned to their Knightsbridge hotel for anguished discussions amongst themselves, but promised to be back in Downing Street by the 10pm deadline. In fact, it was nearly 11.30pm when they returned.

Nothing more was heard about the special train waiting at Euston. Griffith announced calmly, “ Prime Minister, the Delegation is willing to sign the agreements, but there are a few points of drafting which perhaps it would be convenient if I mentioned at once.” The most important concerned the Boundary Commission; redrafting increased (in Irish eyes) the likelihood that Northern Ireland would collapse. At 1am on December 6, an agreed text was handed to the Downing Street typists.

In England, reaction to the Treaty was ecstatic. The Times led the way: “ These are fitting peace terms to mark the close of an age of discontent and distrust, and the beginning of a new era of happiness and mutual understanding.” In Ireland, discontent intensified and took a new form: the long quarrel with Britain was replaced by distrust and division within Sinn Fein, which led to a bitter civil war the following year. In Northern Ireland, IRA terrorism increased, generating sectarian strife; in 1922 parts of Belfast came to resemble the battlefields of the First World War. The Boundary Commission recommended only minor changes, and its report was shelved.

Englishmen looked away. “ The country”, said Austen Chamberlain, “wants peace and is tired of Ireland and Ulster.” English politicians hoped they would never have to think seriously about Irish affairs again. For nearly 50 years they had their wish—which meant that that they were fatally handicapped by ignorance when the Ulster crisis of 1969 erupted.

From Walpole to Johnson, the rude, original vigour of the Prime Minister and the Commons have survived

3 Apr

The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister by Anthony Seldon

Spoiler alert. Ten pages from the end of his 337-page study, Anthony Seldon concludes that “the undoubted challenges” of being Prime Minister “have not made the job impossible”.

He also concedes that making lists of the best Prime Ministers, though “entertaining”, is also “largely meaningless”, because there are no “agreed criteria on what constitutes ‘success’ for a Prime Minister”.

But Seldon knows which PMs he puts in his top class, worthy of the accolade of being “Agenda Changers”, by which he means they “changed the course of the country, and with it, the way the job of Prime Minister operated”:

“Robert Walpole, William Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel, Viscount Palmerston, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Clement Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher.”

No Winston Churchill, which is rather refreshing, for that endlessly fascinating figure can sometimes obscure everyone who came before him.

But oddly enough, in the piece for The Times which Seldon wrote about his book, the top eight become the top nine, for Churchill is included.

One must register here an immediate protest at the exclusion of Pitt the Elder. For although his titanic parliamentary speeches are lost to history – there was no Hansard in that confident century – the electrifying effect of this pioneering globalist’s performances is amply recorded, and it is a mere quibble to say that in 1759, the Year of Victories, he was not actually Prime Minister, but merely the driving force of the Government and of British arms.

In Seldon’s book, Churchill is relegated to the second division, described as “Major Contributors”, as if they had donated substantial sums to the school appeal, after which we get “Positive Stabilisers”, “Noble Failures”, “Ignoble Failures”, and “Left on the Starting Line”, this last category consisting of PMs who served for too short a time to make much of a difference.

All this has the merit of being highly thought-provoking. Seldon is a Gladstonian technocrat. He admires moral seriousness, and getting things done. Life is real and life is earnest, and so is politics.

Walpole, who took office 300 years ago today, is some ways lucky to make the cut. Seldon begins with an imaginary dialogue between Walpole, generally regarded as the first Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson, who is the 55th holder of the office.

Throughout these three centuries, control of the House of Commons has been a cardinal requirement for any Prime Minister, and loss of control, which Walpole suffered at the start of 1742, meant you were out.

Although Seldon reserves his greatest admiration for Prime Ministers who changed the way the office works, he does not seek to hide the fact that in some ways it has remained unchanged.

He does not, however, have much sympathy with any Prime Minister who might be suspected of frivolity. He has little time for Benjamin Disraeli, and a great deal for Robert Peel.

The enduring impact of the great split of 1846, when Disraeli destroyed Peel and almost destroyed the Conservative Party, is underplayed by Seldon:

“For Conservatives, memories of Peel’s splitting the party caused successive leaders regular anxiety.”

Regular nightmares would be more accurate. Robert Blake, in The Unknown Prime Minister, his life of Andrew Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, puts the matter in its true perspective, when explaining why in 1913 Bonar Law felt obliged, as the still quite new Conservative leader, to abandon his personal support for Imperial Preference, an issue as bitterly divisive as Brexit became a century later:

“Did Bonar Law act rightly in thus reversing his own declared policy for the sake of Party unity? To answer this is to to answer a problem in political ethics which has never yet been satisfactorily solved. But in acting as he did there is no doubt that Bonar Law was following the established tradition of previous Conservative leaders. Ever since the day when Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws had broken the Party and driven it into the wilderness for 20 years, successive Conservative leaders had felt it was their duty, at all costs and at almost any sacrifice, to avoid repeating Peel’s action. Disraeli, Salisbury, Balfour, had all regarded party unity as of paramount importance – and Bonar Law both on this occasion, and at several other critical moments in his life, took the same view.”

Such party considerations are almost entirely ignored by Seldon, who instead focuses on what happens inside Number Ten. Bonar Law, who brought down Lloyd George but then served as Prime Minister for only 212 days before being forced by mortal illness to step down, is put among the Prime Ministers who had too little time to do anything significant while in office.

Lord Salisbury, who spent a total of almost 14 years as Prime Minister, is placed by Seldon in the third division. One looks in vain for any recognition of Salisbury’s ability often to defeat Gladstone, by ensuring that after the widening of the franchise in 1884, an organised appeal was made to the “Villa Toryism” found in the suburbs which were springing up round every prosperous town.

In Seldon’s view, Salisbury “was responsible for few fresh initiatives over his 14 years”, so doesn’t belong at the top table. Novelty is what counts, so Tory leaders who disguise innovation as keeping things the same receive no credit.

Lord Rosebery, who in 1894 succeeded Gladstone but remained in office for only a year and a bit, comes off worse. “We need not linger on Lord Rosebery,” Seldon tells us, later adding that this Prime Minster “lacked gravitas, failed to build on Gladstone’s legacy, to give a clear direction, and led the Liberals into a defeat”.

It is certainly true that despite being a man of wealth, intellect, charm and spell-binding eloquence, and winning the Derby twice while he was Prime Minister, Rosebery was a failure. But reading Seldon’s study reminds us that failure can be good for liberty, and good for Parliament.

The voters, who are almost entirely absent from this account, need someone to blame when things have gone wrong, and in many ways it is more satisfying to blame a brilliant Prime Minister than a second-rate one.

The Commons matters because it can end any Prime Minister’s career. Here is one of the great checks on tyranny, for MPs in whichever party or coalition of parties has a parliamentary majority are quick to realise when their leader has become such a liability with the wider public that they themselves will be in danger of losing their seats at the next election.

The Commons withdraws its confidence from a Prime Minister who has failed, and a new Prime Minister, who perhaps sees more clearly what the nation requires, is given the chance to show what he or she can do.

Churchill taking over from the previously impregnable Neville Chamberlain in 1940 is the most dramatic example of this brutal process. We have a wonderfully responsive system, which is one reason why it has absorbed three centuries of shocks: plenty of wars, riots, crashes, slumps and strikes, but no revolution.

The Commons is still there, and when it senses that the right moment has come it will – unless pre-empted by some some other means of getting rid of the Prime Minister such as an election defeat – unmake Johnson as it unmade Thatcher.

Seldon makes proposals for lightening the load borne by the Prime Minister, by delegating much of the routine business of government to a Deputy Prime Minister, and many external responsibilities to the Foreign Secretary, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer demoted to become only the fourth most senior member of the Cabinet.

Such reforms may be desirable, and might even lead to greater efficiency, but efficiency is not enough. And Seldon recognises that well-intentioned reforms often prove transitory.

John Major tried to show he was a different kind of leader by consulting the Cabinet more respectfully than his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, was accustomed to do. As Seldon comments, “It didn’t last. It never does.”

Seldon has interviewed a number of insiders, including Gus O’Donnell, a former Cabinet Secretary, who tells him:

“The role of full Cabinet has been over-emphasised. It’s just become too big to be the decision-making body.”

The same point was made, more amusingly, by C. Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s.

There are a number of astonishing errors in Seldon’s book: Lloyd George is said to have sat for 55 years for a “South Wales seat”, while a well-known remark by Horace Walpole about the fourth Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle (“A Secretary of State without intelligence, a Duke without money, a man of infinite intrigue, without secrecy or policy, and a Minister despised and hated by his master, by all parties and Ministers, without being turned out by any”) is attributed to H.T. Dickinson.

But there are also some wonderful things. Here is the Duke of Portland, Prime Minister in 1783 and again in 1807-9, and classified by Seldon as an Ignoble Failure:

“the idea of courting popularity by any means I have always reprobated…the possession or enjoyment of it has always something in it very suspicious, and I know hardly any act or measure vulgarly or commonly called popular which has not originated in a bad cause, and been productive of pernicious effects.”

Many Remainers would agree most devoutly with Portland. Could it be (as I suggested the other day) that we still live in an 18th-century country?

One of the best things about this book is that it makes one think anew about our political tradition, and give thanks that certain features of it, including the office of Prime Minister, still possess, despite all attempts by glorified management consultants at modernisation, some traces of their rude original vigour.