DISASTROUS P.M.s AND THEIR AFTERMATH
Attaining and ignominiously losing the office of British Prime Minister is hardly a contemporary phenomenon. Winston Churchill was virtually no one’s choice to succeed the deposed Neville Chamberlain in 1940.
Sometimes disastrous Downing Street defeats actually play out for the best.
On May 10, 1940, with open revolt against Neville Chamberlain having broken out in the House of Commons, Germany’s blitzkrieg of Holland and Belgium began. Hours later the Germans invaded France. Chamberlain was compelled to resign. His first choice to succeed—his appeasement-minded Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax—declined. By default, and against Chamberlain’s better judgment, Winston Churchill was offered the premiership by King George VI.
There was no time for Churchill to savor his achievement. The military situation across the Chanel was abysmal. His political support was negligible. “The Tories don’t trust Winston,” one member of the House of Lords wrote to Stanley Baldwin the very next day. “After the first clash of war is over it may well be that a sounder Government may emerge.” Yet Churchill was exhilarated by the impossible odds against him. “I was conscious of a profound sense of relief,” he later wrote. “At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
Churchill’s first two acts were to write two letters, one to Chamberlain, the other to Halifax, thanking them and inviting them to stay on as members of his War Cabinet. Magnanimity remained his governing principle. “No-one had more right to pass a sponge across the past,” he would later concede. “I therefore resisted these disruptive tendencies.”
At the end of September 1940, an ailing Neville Chamberlain asked Churchill for permission to resign as Lord President of the Council and return to private life. Churchill at first attempted to dissuade Chamberlain but finally accepted his resignation. The official announcement was then apparently mishandled by the Ministry of Information, according to a letter that we recently acquired from the estate of Sir John Colville, Winston Churchill’s Principal Private Secretary during the war (and after).
The letter is from Samuel Hood, Secretary to the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, dated “9th October, 1940,” addressed to “J.R. Colville,” and begins: “Dear Jock.”
I promised that I would let you have a note about the error which was made here when communicating the Prime Minister’s letter to Mr. Chamberlain to the Press.
As I told you on the telephone, the mistake was made in the News Division here who, in their anxiety to issue the announcement and exchange of letters as rapidly as possible, did not check the hand-out properly.
We deeply regret that this mistake should have been made and we have taken steps to ensure that there shall be no recurrence of this sort of thing.”
Churchill chastises no one for the mistake, but does loop the surnames “Jock” and “Sammy” in red ink and writes disapprovingly below: “It is better to be more formal in official correspondence. WSC 11.x.”
We wish everyone renewed safety and health,
and much better British Prime Ministers.