Prime Minister Theresa May has made clear her admiration for her predecessor Sir Winston Churchill, after shadow chancellor John McDonnell branded him a “villain”.
A spokesman said the Prime Minister regarded Churchill as “one of the great prime ministers of the 20th century” and had personally selected a portrait of him from the Government’s art collection to hang on the wall of her study at Downing Street.
The Labour heavyweight’s comment has sparked a furious reaction from Churchill’s admirers, with Sir Nicholas Soames – the grandson of the wartime prime minister – dismissing it as “foolish and stupid”, and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson demanding a retraction.
If John McDonnell had the slightest knowledge of history he would be aware that Churchill also had an extraordinary record as a social reformer who cared deeply for working people and their lives. JM should be utterly ashamed of his remarks and withdraw them forthwith 2/2
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) February 14, 2019
Mr McDonnell made the comment during a sequence of quick-fire questions in an interview with the Politico website streamed live on the internet.
Asked “Winston Churchill. Hero or villain?” he responded with two words: “Tonypandy – villain.”
Churchill’s reputation has long been tarnished for some on the left by events in the South Wales town of Tonypandy in 1910, when troops were sent to help police deal with riots by striking miners.
His decision, as home secretary, to deploy a detachment of Lancashire Fusiliers to support police was followed by confrontations in which nearly 80 police and 500 civilians were injured and one miner died.
Churchill’s responsibility for the events is a matter of fierce historical debate, but Mr McDonnell’s response made clear that he held the former PM to blame.
Mrs May’s official spokesman said the public will “reach its own judgment on this characterisation of Sir Winston Churchill”. He noted that Churchill was voted history’s greatest Briton in a 2002 poll.
And he added: “The Prime Minister has quoted and referenced Sir Winston Churchill on many occasions and acknowledged him as one of the great prime ministers of the 20th century.
“She has a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill hung on the wall of her study in Number 10.
“His strong leadership, determination and unwavering personality inspired our country through our darkest hour and helped Britain protect those values of peace and freedom that we hold so dear today.”
Look who takes pride of place on my mantelpiece in Dudley: a real British hero, the greatest ever Briton, the man who motivated Britain to defeat the Nazis and fight not just for our liberty but the world’s freedom too. pic.twitter.com/UEFCc7QWwv
— Ian Austin (@IanAustinMP) February 13, 2019
Mr Johnson – the author of a book on the wartime prime minister – said Mr McDonnell should be “ashamed” of his comment.
“Winston Churchill saved this country and the whole of Europe from a barbaric fascist and racist tyranny and our debt to him is incalculable,” the former foreign secretary said.
“If John McDonnell had the slightest knowledge of history he would be aware that Churchill also had an extraordinary record as a social reformer who cared deeply for working people and their lives.
“John McDonnell should be utterly ashamed of his remarks and withdraw them forthwith.”
Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames told the Daily Telegraph: “Frankly, it’s a very foolish and stupid thing to say, surely said to gain publicity.
“I think my grandfather’s reputation can withstand a publicity-seeking assault from a third-rate, Poundland Lenin. I don’t think it will shake the world.”
And Labour MP Ian Austin voiced his disagreement by posting a picture on social media of a figurine of the wartime leader he keeps at home.
Mr Austin said: “Look who takes pride of place on my mantelpiece in Dudley: a real British hero, the greatest ever Briton, the man who motivated Britain to defeat the Nazis and fight not just for our liberty but the world’s freedom too.”
Tory former minister Robert Halfon called for a Commons statement on Sir Winston’s achievements, telling MPs: “Far from being a villain, Winston Churchill was not only our greatest prime minister but a wonderful social reformer and a man who defeated Nazi tyranny.”
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom replied: “Someone calling Sir Winston Churchill a villain is, in effect, denigrating the achievements of a man who led this country to potentially its greatest-ever contribution to global peace, and it’s a great shame that he was described in this way.”