The new PM shares his 19th-century predecessor’s charm, but on statesmanship skills it’s another matter
Our new prime minister is said to be an admirer of Winston Churchill, but a better model for Boris Johnson would be Lord Palmerston, Britain’s first Liberal premier. He too was a populist, with a gift for the telling phrase. The 19th-century statesman’s success was to make special issues, often in the field of foreign policy, central to popular politics. His technique was the shameless use of the popular press.
When in 1864 he was cited as co-respondent in a divorce case at the age of 79, his political enemies were eager to pounce on this latest indiscretion of a notorious womaniser. Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli, however, wisely advised his colleagues in opposition to keep quiet. To do otherwise, he said, would only increase Palmerston’s popularity. He was right: the old man went on to win the 1865 election with an increased majority for the Liberals.
He died the same year, while still in office, but not before adding to his fame with these last words: “Die, my dear doctor? That’s the last thing I shall do.”
Palmerston is remembered as one of only a few politicians who have combined populism with statesmanship. Boris Johnson has succeeded in the first of these, so he is halfway there.