Just as the 1995 Conservative government was about to oversee millions of pounds of public money being spent acquiring the wartime diaries of Sir Winston Churchill, a dissenting voice urged against lining the pockets of the former prime minister’s estate.
The commentator? A newspaper columnist named Boris Johnson.
Cuttings from The Daily Telegraph landing on John Major’s desk included an opinion piece written by the future Churchill biographer-turned-prime minister in which he lamented proposals to hand over National Lottery money to keep the private papers in the UK.
Mr Johnson, who would later be in a position to keep prime ministerial diaries of his own, wrote: “Maybe the nation’s lottery punters, two thirds of the adult population, would have mourned if their collected stakes had not found their way into the pockets of Winston Churchill, MP and socialite, who will receive £12.5 million to keep the papers in this country.”
Paraphrasing Churchill’s tubthumping 1940 Battle of Britain speech, which coined the phrase “the Few” to describe the nation’s debt to the brave RAF fighter pilots who defeated the German Luftwaffe, Mr Johnson added: “Maybe, as they look at the way the lottery cash is spent, they will conclude that seldom in the field of human avarice was so much spent by so many on so little; that this is the most elegant means yet devised of taking from the poor to give to the rich.”
A media briefing note sent to then-prime minister Mr Major by an aide says that there is “no question” of lottery money being used to buy state papers.
It also stated that the papers were valued at £25 million – “far higher” than the National Heritage Memorial Fund paid for them, representing “enormous value for money”, the briefing note said.
A press release issued at the time said the collection included more than 1.5 million papers, and included “almost everything Churchill ever wrote – from his first tear-stained letters to his mother as a homesick schoolboy to the moment of his defeat in the 1945 election”.
Mr Johnson, who became Prime Minister in 2019, has described Sir Winston as a “hero”, and is said to model himself on the former premier.
The documents were among the latest items released to the public at the National Archives, Kew.