The Fall of Lloyd George: Robert Pearce Attempts to Probe the Nature of the 1918-22 Coalition

Article excerpt

The slippery pole is hard to scale, but remarkably easy to slip down. This was certainly the experience of David Lloyd George, one of the most able and charismatic of all modern premiers. In November-December 1918 it seemed that his position was unassailable. Widely regarded as 'the man who won the won', he cashed in on this popularity with a 'khaki' election that gave him an enormous overall majority. Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law judged that he could be 'prime minister for life if he likes'. Yet less than four yeas later, in October 1922, the Conservatives voted at the Carlton Club by a huge majority to end the coalition government. Lloyd George was thus thrown from office, and was never to return.

What caused this transformation?

It is very tempting to explain it by what historians sometimes, rather

pompously, call contingent factors, or what a later prime minister, Harold Macmillan, once referred to as the politician's greatest enemy, 'events, my dear boy'. But this would be misleading, for the stark contrast between 1918 and 1922 is an illusion. The origins of Lloyd George's downfall can be found at the moment of his greatest triumph.

The Nature of the Coalition

Lloyd George had first become prime minister in December 1916, heading an all-party coalition and replacing his former Liberal boss H.H. Asquith. This was beneficial for the war effort but disastrous for LG's longer-term political future. The Liberals were now split, and the division was not to be healed until the party had ceased to count for much in British politics. This did not seem to matter in December 1918, since the Conservatives, who had not won an election on their own since 1900 and doubted that they had much future, were happy to carry on the coalition with the 'Welsh Wizard' and gain electorally thereby. Probably most Conservatives believed that they owed the 335 seats the party won to the famous Liberal figure who headed the coalition and who, along with Bonar Law, signed the 'coupon' endorsing their candidatures. But there can be no doubt about it: the Conservatives won the 1918 election, and with a massive 70 per cent of the government's seats. On their own they had a workable majority. Once they had regained their confidence, the Tories would decide that LG owed his position to them and that he kept it on their sufferance.

As Lord Beaverbrook later put it, Lloyd George was 'a prime minister without a party'. He could not rely on the backbench support which a prime minister with a party can automatically expect. Nor did he have much in common with most Conservative MPs. Temperamentally he has always been a radial, and before the war--with the People's Budget of 1909, the National Insurance Act of 1911, the Parliament Act of 1911 and other radical reforms--he had been the greatest enemy of the Tories, and not only with these policies but with brilliant anti-Conservative invective and repartee. Therefore he would remain at Number 10 only if he could satisfy--and if possible dazzle--the Tory backbenchers and remain popular with the electors who would return them, or not, at another genera election. He had to be successful and to be seen to be successful. He could not afford to delegate, for then the credit would go to his ministers, most of whom were Conservative. Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon often complained that LG treated him as a 'gilded doormat'. But this was a dangerous game. Its corollary was that political failure would inevitably reflect personally on the coalition supremo.

Thus the very nature of the coalition meant that, from December 1918 onwards, LG had a very fragile political base. In wartime the common German enemy had kept the coalition united, but in peacetime the socialist bogey was a poor substitute. Admittedly chance 'events' (or contingent factors) played their part in wrecking it. In March 1920, he came close to forming a new 'centre' party by fusing his Liberal supporters and mainstream Conservatives, until leading Liberals got cold feet at the last moment. …