David Lloyd George was unquestionably one of the twentieth century’s greatest Prime Ministers. He led Britain to a far-from-certain victory in the First World War, he established the Cabinet Office and the administrative centre of government which essentially remains intact to this day and he led a very successful coalition over six years of government. A compelling public speaker and a serial seducer of women, he was a person who made it from humble Welsh beginnings to the top of imperial government at the very height of the Empire itself. Loved and loathed, despised and respected, Lloyd George was a politician none could dismiss. Indeed it is probably not too much to say that, had Winston Churchill and his wartime leadership not eclipsed Lloyd George’s own, then today we would be celebrating him and not Churchill as Britain’s greatest wartime leader. 

This elegant and fluent new biography by the Conservative politician Damian Collins, Rivals in the Storm: How Lloyd George Seized Power, won the war and lost his government sets out Lloyd George’s life and his times, his period in office and his eventual downfall. It is often said that all political careers end in failure and that is of course true. If you seek the heights of elected office, a noble and worthy ambition at any time for any responsible citizen, and if you succeed, then your time will inevitably pass at some point.

Lloyd George ruthlessly displaced the leader of his own Liberal Party, H. H. Asquith, to seize the premiership but the moment was propitious. Asquith had been a lacklustre war leader lacking the determination and ruthlessness necessary to fight all-out war in a new mechanised age that was increasingly changing the nature of warfare itself. If Asquith represented the very last of that elegant educated romantic notion of the high summer of the Edwardian era, then Lloyd George by contrast was an admirable example of the new self-made, non-university type of person who was increasingly representing the changing face of industrial and urban Britain. 

Lloyd George revolutionised the way government itself was run. Hitherto, it had been a loose coalition of senior figures gathering to discuss the day’s events and in a vaguely haphazard way, to determine some policy to pursue. By introducing the first Cabinet secretary and the Cabinet secretariat, initially called the War Cabinet, under the very able and distinguished leadership of the former royal marine officer Sir Maurice Hankey, Lloyd George brought to the centre of government a degree of rigour and structure that had never previously existed. The success of this innovation, indeed the necessity of this innovation, can be seen by the fact that the role of Cabinet Secretary, although varying from Prime Minister to Prime Minister in what the exact nature of the duties involved may be, has remained a central figure to the system of governing Britain. As indeed has the Cabinet Office itself which has grown into being the single most powerful department of state, a characterisation it would energetically refute but nevertheless is the fact, for within it sits not only the administrative hub of Britain, but the coordination of the secret and security services that form the heart of the British state. 

It may be the Treasury that attracts and wallows self-confidently in the reputation of being the most powerful government department, but to those who know where power really sits in Whitehall, the Cabinet Office is without question the place any politician who is more interested in power than profile is anxious to reach. Lloyd George therefore not only re-galvanised Britain’s fighting spirit when he seized the premiership in 1916, thereby saving the nation from defeat in the war, but he also left a permanent and historical change in the way his successors exercised power in office. 

This is the second book Damian Collins has produced and his equally elegant book on Philip Sassoon is also well worth reading. Indeed in many ways the two books are companion pieces as there is much overlapping material. Collins, until the recent prorogation of parliament for the general election, was the Member of Parliament for Folkestone and Hythe, the area that covers Port Lympne, one of the two country homes of Philip Sasson. Indeed Lloyd George spent much time at the gloriously fashioned and sumptuous country house. Collins has spent time, not just in Westminster but around Whitehall, and displays a deft touch when describing political shenanigans and goings on. It is all too rare these days to find a politician who can do more than rattle off a shallow, op-ed piece for a newspaper, or a wearying social media post, and Collins sits in that great tradition of author/scholar/Members of Parliament. 

I can only hope that he has other books in the pipeline. In the meantime, be assured this is a great read and a beautiful evocation of an age of elegance, high policy and low intrigue in a political world where Britain’s views and actions mattered to many people, at home and around the world.

Rivals in the Storm: How Lloyd George seized power, won the war and lost his government by Damian Collins (Bloomsbury, 368pp; £25).

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