If the distinguished investigative author Tom Bower is correct, Dominic Cummings is a uniquely powerful Downing Street adviser who has won an election and remains determined to deliver Brexit and “revolutionise Britain’s decrepit government machine”. But if intense loyalty to a prime minister and his cause are the qualities of a truly dedicated special adviser, Cummings has a powerful predecessor who is almost forgotten today.
Unlike Cummings, George Steward, the personal press officer to Neville Chamberlain (British prime minister between May 1937 and May 1940), was a career civil servant. But he used every trick in the spin doctor’s book to defeat the Foreign Office’s opposition to his employer’s policy of appeasement. The media historian Richard Cockett describes in his book, Twilight of Truth, how Steward helped Chamberlain curb the hostility of British newspapers towards Nazi Germany and converted most of them to active support for appeasement.
James Margach, then the lobby correspondent of the Times, has described how Chamberlain worked “to manipulate the press into supporting his policy of peace at all costs”. And Steward was willing to go beyond spin. On Wednesday, November 23, 1938, MI5 spotted him sneaking into the German embassy on London’s Carlton House Terrace. There, between the hours of 1.15pm and 3.50pm, Steward conducted private negotiations with the Nazi regime.
Inside the embassy, George Steward met Dr Fritz Hesse, press attaché and confidant of Joachim von Ribbentrop, then Hitler’s minister of foreign affairs. MI5 had an additional informant inside the embassy. This invaluable source reported that Steward visited as “a representative of the PM”.
The intelligence agency obtained a complete version of the report Hesse sent to von Ribbentrop. It explained that George Steward had offered concessions that could “serve as the basis for a General Anglo-German understanding”. Steward said that these should be negotiated “direct between the Fuhrer and Chamberlain”. Dr Hesse reported that: “Great Britain is now ready … to accept practically everything from us and to fulfil our every wish”.
Whether the man, described in MI5’s report as “5ft 9in tall” and “of medium build” with blue eyes and “a slight squint in his right eye”, was acting on his own initiative or at Chamberlain’s request the records do not reveal. But Chamberlain refused to dismiss Steward when the foreign secretary Lord Halifax – despite his own tendency towards appeasement and at the insistence of his own senior adviser – confronted the prime minister with MI5’s report of Steward’s clandestine meeting. Steward continued to work for Chamberlain until the latter’s premiership ended in May 1940.
Since joining Chamberlain’s Downing Street team in 1937, Steward had manipulated parliamentary lobby correspondents to present appeasement as the only practical policy. This he achieved by undermining the long-established Westminster tradition whereby senior political journalists spoke freely to MPs, ministers and civil servants. Steward decided that all significant news about government policy must reach lobby correspondents from his lips or those of a loyal minister.
He turned his own frequent lobby briefings into the key source of political news. To remain in the know, lobby correspondents had to attend. And, as lobby rules required, they reported what Steward said without attribution, thus conveying the impression that it was an unalloyed fact.
Evidence in the national archives reveals that Sir Alexander Cadogan, permanent under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office, believed Steward’s conciliatory approach to the Nazi regime could “only result in discomfiting the moderates in Germany, in confirming the extremists in power, and in some bogus settlement which will be the beginning of the end of the British empire, chloroformed as it will be by a totally false impression of security”.
If that was too extreme a fear, there can be no question that Steward’s loyalty to Chamberlain was at least as intense as that of excellent Downing Street communications chiefs such as Tony Blair’s Alastair Campbell or Margaret Thatcher’s Bernard Ingham. At a time when nearly 80% of British households read a daily national newspaper, he bent the Westminster and Whitehall lobby correspondents to his will and ruthlessly crushed a counter-briefing operation run by his rival, Reginald “Rex” Leeper, at the anti-appeasement Foreign Office.
Leeper had gathered around him a dedicated team of diplomatic correspondents who regurgitated his briefings accurately but unattributed. When their newspapers bowed to Chamberlain or Steward, Leeper’s pets, as they were known, would brief one of the private anti-appeasement newsletters then circulating, such as Claud Cockburn’s The Week. Among the leading “pets” were influential correspondents including Vernon Bartlett of the liberal News Chronicle, Victor Gordon-Lennox of the Conservative Daily Telegraph and Norman Ewer of the Labour-supporting Daily Herald.
But by the time of Steward’s clandestine mission to the German embassy, Leeper and his principal backer at the Foreign Office, Sir Robert Vansittart (Cadogan’s predecessor) had been forced out of their jobs at the prime minister’s insistence.
We know little about what sort of man George Steward was. The MI5 field agent who watched him approach the German embassy on that afternoon noted that he wore a homburg and a dark grey suit with narrow-cut trousers. He also had a light grey tweed overcoat and walked with his feet turned out.
But we know more about the result of his visit to the German embassy. Steward’s efforts to consolidate Chamberlain’s ambitions came in the immediate aftermath of the Munich Agreement of September 1938 by which Britain and France consented to the German annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia.
Chamberlain’s reputation as a defender of peace was at its peak – and Steward hoped an extended agreement with Hitler could secure his reputation as the hero of the age. The awkward squad in the Foreign Office must get no credit at all. And we know how that turned out.
Tim Luckhurst is principal of South College, Durham University.