In October 1943, two years after the death of his wife, Margaret, David Lloyd George married Frances Stevenson, his mistress of 30 years. The king and the prime minister offered their congratulations. Lloyd George's secretary, A J Sylvester, who had organised decades of subterfuge for the couple, complained in his diary: "He has lived a life of duplicity. He has got clean away with it." It is difficult to believe that a British politician could do the same today.
The details are extraordinary. At first, the pretty 22-year-old schoolteacher was employed as the summer tutor for Megan, the young daughter of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as he then was. Soon, Frances was his private secretary, and by 1913, they were lovers. So, throughout the war and the Paris peace negotiations "The Man Who Won The War" had his "pussy" by his side more often than his wife. While Margaret stayed at the family home in Criccieth, Frances was virtual mistress of the Lloyd George household.
It was a consuming affair that required accomplices. First J T Davies as the PM's personal private secretary and then Sylvester covered for them. Society figures like the owner of the News of the World, Sir George Riddell, and Sir Philip Sassoon regularly hosted them. There was even an attempt to mask the relationship by marrying Frances to a compliant young Captain, Billy Owen. By the Thirties the affair was an open secret with both Frances' and Lloyd George's families fully aware.
There were plenty of complications. Frances had at least two abortions and when she did have a child, she took out adoption papers, never openly admitting that Jennifer was hers. She had other sustained affairs, not least with the married war hero Colonel Thomas Tweed, who as Liberal campaign manager also worked for Lloyd George. Indeed, as John Campbell comprehensively explores, it is possible that Tweed was Jennifer's real father.
So this is a story that begs you to judge its protagonists. It is difficult not to be critical of the hypocritical jealousy, the egotism and the downright insensitivity of the great Liberal. Yet despite rows and intense negotiations, both Frances and Margaret seem to have loved Lloyd George and derived enormous pleasure from their relationship with him. The passionate love letters between Lloyd George and Frances are a potent testament to an enduring love. So perhaps we are mistaken to cavil.
But there was a cruelty. When Frances was interviewed about her life with "the Chief", she was asked whether she had ever regretted not having children. Maintaining the secret to the end, she first hesitated and then said, "Lloyd George was my child". It is not surprising that Jennifer felt "obliterated".
Campbell's pacily written book is tantalising. It is the sheer quantity of material, with hundreds of letters and diary entries comprehensively transcribed, that makes this rather prurient volume possible (we even get to know about the size of Lloyd George's penis). But so much remains just offstage. Margaret - as is perhaps always the case for the injured wife - is virtually invisible. Even Frances remains a half-lit character and Campbell is rather silent about the relation between Lloyd George's personal and political life.
The book throws up many other fascinations. The story reminds us that some of our most able leaders have had complex personal lives - Lloyd George's rampant sexual activity was matched by his friend Winston Churchill's bouts of depression. Yet the modern media, with their far greater investigative determination and more acute sense of moral outrage, would never allow them to survive today. So we live in a world of double standards. We are accustomed to confessional tomes by celebrities living unconventional lives. Yet we expect political leaders to abide by a different set of rules.
Campbell's book reminds us that public respectability is no more than veneer. Human beings have always lived far more complicated lives than convention would allow. Indeed Megan Lloyd George, who viciously blamed Frances, had a lengthy adulterous affair with the married peace campaigner and Labour MP, Philip Noel-Baker. So we should allow the Lloyd Georges of today to have extraordinary private lives, lest we denude the political sphere of talent, imagination and energy. In the end, prurient judgementalism is bad for us all.
Chris Bryant is Labour MP for Rhondda and the biographer of Sir Stafford CrippsReuse content