What Boris Johnson Should Have Known

A touch of Churchillian circumspection—rather than just bulldog bravado—might have saved the prime minister’s moral and political authority.

Boris Johnson
OLI SCARFF / AFP via Getty

In May 1942, Winston Churchill’s personal lawyer was shown into the cabinet room in 10 Downing Street. At the time, the country was in a life-or-death struggle with Nazism. For all its success in the Battle of Britain, there had been precious little to cheer since: The Germans were pushing into Soviet territory, Britain’s campaign in North Africa was struggling, and Singapore had fallen to the Japanese. In London, though, the prime minister had a personal problem: The country’s tax authorities had ruled that his sale of serial rights for an old piece of writing to a newspaper was taxable. Perennially strapped for cash, Churchill wanted to know whether he could appeal. And if he did, would the public find out?

“Will it be entirely private; can anyone get to know about it?” he asked his lawyer, Anthony Moir, according to an account in the historian Andrew Roberts’s biography, Churchill. Should the prime minister risk undermining his personal authority by trying to reduce his tax bill? Churchill also had a second question for Moir: “Is it right for me, in my position, to appeal; I am also First Lord of the Treasury?”

Churchill knew the importance of perception in politics, the need to maintain public support and morale. Though he had been given enormous powers, thanks to legislation passed years prior, his party remained dominated by supporters of his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, and Churchill’s grip was far from absolute. He did not want to risk the public’s discovering his dispute with the tax authorities. Yet he was also clearly weighing up what the right thing to do was: Even if the saga could be kept secret, was it right for a person in his position to appeal such a decision?

In the intervening decades, politicians’ professional calculations and personal dilemmas might have altered in their specifics, but in their base nature, they remain remarkably unchanged.

Over the past few days, Boris Johnson’s government has been convulsed by the revelation that his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, appears to have flouted the lockdown laws he was instrumental in creating. Cummings drove hundreds of miles with his child and sick wife to stay at his parents’ farm in northeast England. While the advice to the country was to “stay home,” Cummings left his; while people were dying alone, quarantined from their family, Cummings went to be with his, in case his child needed looking after.

In the days since the news was splashed across the front pages of the Daily Mirror and The Guardian, there has been an eruption of public disgust. Within Johnson’s Conservative Party, more than a dozen members of Parliament have demanded that Cummings resign, and one junior minister has quit over the issue. In an attempt to temper the outrage, Cummings held his own press conference in the Downing Street garden—he refused to apologize, and said he would not resign, but acknowledged that public concern about his decisions was reasonable, given the daily compromises people were being asked to make.

Still, whatever the rights and wrongs of Cummings’s account, both he and his boss failed to ask the same basic questions that Churchill felt compelled to ask at the height of his authority, when he enjoyed approval ratings of more than 90 percent. Cummings did not seek out professional or political advice before embarking on his trip, which is at the very least open to serious questions over whether it complied with the government’s own lockdown guidance, and when he did tell his boss, no action was taken. When the media started asking questions, no information was provided. Having failed to ask for guidance on the moral question, as Churchill had done in 1942, Cummings and Johnson then failed to ask the professional one: Will the story get out? The failure to adequately test both questions has left Johnson with the most serious challenge to his public standing and authority since his election victory in December.

The parallels are imperfect, but Johnson, a Churchill biographer, would surely be aware of them. Like his hero, Johnson has high approval ratings (albeit not as high as Churchill’s), and thanks to emergency coronavirus legislation, has amassed huge powers over individual Britons’ lives. Yet less than a year into his premiership, he faces an invigorated opposition and mounting questions over his government’s handling of a pandemic that has killed more people in Britain than anywhere but the United States.

Cummings is no ordinary political aide—he is, in the words of one colleague who asked to remain anonymous, the driving “force of nature” inside Johnson’s government. He was the architect of the Brexit campaign, whose success in 2016 has done more to revolutionize Britain than any other vote since Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory. He is an anarcho-libertarian who despises Johnson’s Conservative Party, and what he sees as the liberal elite in Westminster, feelings which are returned in equal measure by all those he has railed against—and defeated.

Johnson would be wise to take a lesson from his great hero and predecessor as prime minister—and not in the simple Blitz-spirit cliché with which Churchill is most closely associated. Throughout his life, Churchill remained what he had always been: pugnacious, eccentric, daring, and distrusted. But by the time he became prime minister, he had also learned to be cautious—prodding his military chiefs throughout the conflict, for example, demanding more risk-taking and aggression, but not once overruling their unanimous advice. What applied to high strategy also held in low politics: Although Churchill loathed ruling by what he described as “the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll,” according to Roberts, he was acutely aware of public opinion and the need to appear to be doing the right thing, as his meeting with his lawyer attests.

For Johnson and his team, a touch more Churchillian circumspection—rather than just bulldog bravado—might have saved them a lot of the moral and political authority they might need in the coming months.