It’s 100 years since David Lloyd George became the first solicitor to rise to prime minister. By a well-timed palace coup.

A row about trade barriers involving Europe has split the Conservative Party after an unhappy period in coalition. Labour is nowhere in the polls, but a press baron is pulling strings behind the scenes. A sudden crisis prompts a prime minister’s resignation – and the unexpected elevation of a controversial ministerial figure to No 10. 

Yes, it is December 1916. The new prime minister is David Lloyd George, who has displaced his Liberal colleague Herbert Asquith, PM since 1908.

A century on, Lloyd George remains the only solicitor to have risen to UK prime minister. (Asquith, like many, before and since, was a barrister.)

The appointment of Lloyd George, nicknamed the Welsh Wizard, as coalition wartime leader was an uncanny precursor to that of his sometime friend and protege Winston Churchill 24 years later. However Lloyd George's rise is much less known, and much less celebrated in popular culture. Perhaps that’s because of the differing folk memories of the two wars – the ‘senseless slaughter’ of the first vs the ‘good war’ of the second.

But it could also be because Lloyd George’s climb to No 10 involved a certain... shall we say ruthlessness? 

In fact the picture that emerges from contemporary accounts is of a classic political assassination. 

The crisis in the uneasy Liberal-Conservative coalition began with an obscure legal question. About nuts. Specifically, Nigerian palm kernels. In a letter to the Solicitors Journal and Weekly Reporter on 4 November 1916, Richard King of Temple Chambers questioned why German plantations seized in what was then the British territory of Nigeria were being sold by the office of the public trustee to the highest bidder. Did not the terms of the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act 1916 require every purchaser to be a ‘natural-born British subject’? 

The issue became a cause celebre in parliament, with the Ulster Unionists led by Sir Edward Carson (another renowned barrister) banging the protectionist drum. Winston Churchill, then languishing in what was for him the humiliating position of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, recalled that the debate was ‘marked by the utmost acerbity’. 

The big split was in the Conservative members of Asquith's coalition. Churchill wrote: ‘Stung by this attack from his own friends and supporters, [Conservative leader] Mr Bonar Law declared bluntly that the matter was one of direct confidence in the government, and that Sir Edward Carson no doubt realised the seriousness of the course he was taking.’

That was a rash move; the coalition survived, but fatally weakened by a hostile vote. Asquith, mourning his eldest son who had died on the Somme in September, had run out of steam. The following month, Lloyd George, as secretary of state for war, stuck the knife in. This time the cause was a row about the chairmanship of a three-man committee to direct the national war effort. When the prime minister insisted that he should chair the committee, Lloyd George resigned, followed by three Unionist members of Cabinet.

With his government in tatters, Asquith resigned in turn, apparently confident that the opposition would not be able to form a government and that he would be recalled. Asquith was right about Andrew Bonar Law, who was summoned to the palace the same day but failed to get the necessary Liberal and Unionist support. However Lloyd George was ready to pounce. He was summoned to the palace at seven in the evening and set about assembling a coalition including the Conservative Lord Balfour and Labour’s Arthur Henderson. The condition was that Churchill was to have no role – news broken to him via Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, who had just acquired the Daily Express. 

Lloyd George’s secretary and mistress Frances Stevenson wrote in her memoirs that when the new prime minister returned from the palace ‘he was very pale and said he would like to run away to the mountains. “I’m not at all sure I can do it,” he said.’

The following day, 8 December, the Council of the Law Society passed the following resolution: ‘That the congratulations of the council be tendered to the Right Honourable David Lloyd George MP on the occasion of his being called upon by His Majesty the King to occupy the high position of First Minister of the Crown.

‘The council desire to take this opportunity of recording their entirely unqualified appreciation of Mr Lloyd George’s efforts in the organisation of the country’s forces, military and civil, towards a victorious prosecution of the war.’

The stress on 'entirely unqualified appreciation' is revealing. As was the comment in Solicitors Journal: ‘Mr Lloyd George has the confidence of the great mass of his fellow countrymen as fully as if the change were the result of a sweeping victory at the polls. That, we believe, represents the fact, whatever individual opinions may be, and Mr Lloyd George is entitled to all the support that the supreme crisis and the national confidence demand in him.’

It went on to say: ‘At the same time, there is a moral to be drawn from the sudden transfer of the premiership from the barristers’ branch to the solicitors’ branch of the profession. It is with solicitors that caution is supposed specially to lie; caution and the spirit of compromise.

‘They remember that the uncertainty of litigation imposes a terrible strain on the client, especially when the costs are mounting up. So we are not sorry that the nation can rely on Mr Lloyd George’s caution as well as on his energy.’

Relying on Lloyd George's caution was always a lost cause. The Wizard was to earn credit as the 'man who won the war'. He even managed, after a decent interval, to slip Churchill back into the cabinet. And in 1918 Lloyd George achieved his sweeping victory at the polls. Ironically, he himself was the victim of a palace coup, in 1922, amid a cash-for-honours scandal and a military imbroglio in the Middle East.

He never returned to power. 

A century on, it is tempting to bemoan the absence of figures like Lloyd George and Churchill (unlikely as it is that either would last long under modern scrutiny) amid the political pygmies of today. But perhaps we should just be grateful that we're not currently in the kind of crisis that makes us resort to giants. 

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor