09 November 2017
Six Minutes in May
Are we back with Neville Chamberlain?
by J.R. Thomas
Nicolas Shakespeare’s new book Six Minutes in May relates in great detail the momentous days of early 1940 when the failed attempt to defend Norway against the Nazi invasion ended with Winston Churchill becoming premier in place of Neville Chamberlain. The book is not dissimilar in its structure and approach to Javier Cercas’s remarkable examination of the 1981 attempted coup d’etat in Spain, The Anatomy of a Moment, which we recommended in the Shaw Sheet a couple of weeks ago. It does however extend to some wonderfully juicy gossip – the ascetic Anglo-Catholic Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, so cool and austere that he was known as the Holy Ghost, had a mistress, widely known in his close circle but not outside it (the circle may have been pursed-lipped but also remained tight-lipped; things have indeed changed).
Halifax’s dalliance seems strangely unlikely, but no more so than the then establishment view of the extreme undesirability of Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister. Not only was the Norwegian adventure Churchill’s idea, and driven by him against doubts from the military and political establishments, he was (in spite of, or perhaps because of, his dire warnings about Hitler having been proved right) much disliked and distrusted throughout the Commons, and by most of the political establishment. And at 66 he was not an obvious man for such a strenuous job.
But Chamberlain, tired, his reputation destroyed, and his authority eroding, had to go. Halifax did not want the top job enough to fight for it, and in any case the public wanted Winston. Which must give some hope to Churchill biographer and political roustabout Boris Johnson, as Mrs May’s supporters grow more doubtful, her enemies bolder, and those scheming strategists who thought it best to keep her there until the UK had Brexited daily more dubious as to whether their grand plan will work. Boris is not the only Tory politician contemplating job strategy; David Davis is a healthy 68 and is flourishing in his return to Cabinet life; and Damian Green, possible knee brushing incidents aside, is 61. Set your preferred age limit below 60 and there is a whole raft of candidates who claim no ambitions – but do not disclaim them either.
In many ways we are in a situation that has strange parallels with early 1940. A Prime Minister of modest ability who has made a whole series of missteps leading to a complex mess; of high integrity but whose judgement of people and events increasingly looks flawed; whose tendency to interfere and fiddle has weakened her influence irreparably. And whose health is not of the best. Powerful barons jostle around; none yet quite dare strike but several suspect the time is coming that they must. One other similarity, which did not matter much in 1940 but may become the deciding factor in 2018; a Tory Prime Minister whose reforming agenda is regarded with great suspicion by her party.
The issue you might think was simpler in 1940; which leader would be best at winning the war? But at the time the choice was not seen as that simple; there was a significant body of establishment opinion, including Chamberlain and Halifax, that wanted peace, a negotiated settlement. Only that would save Europe from destruction and the British Empire from collapse. It was probably what Hitler wanted too; he seems not to have really thought that Britain would go to war over Poland and he had concerns over Germany’s ability to win a sustained war; at least until he had had more time to prepare.
We are, hopefully, not facing a war over the next couple of years, but the negotiations to disengage from Europe could if mishandled lead to seriously detrimental effects on Britain’s economy and society over a prolonged period. There is a significant body of opinion that was greatly dismayed by the Referendum result, remains adamantly opposed to a British exit from the European Union, and can now start to see glimmerings that it might be possible to engineer, if not a reversal of Brexit, at least a delayed and much weakened disengagement.
It is easy to see in the current febrile atmosphere in Westminster that the government may become so weakened that it will have to agree many compromises to get the exit legislation through; so many compromises that Britain will not depart but simply become semi-detached from Brussels – and one day perhaps, like a fat salmon, be slowly reeled back into the European net. As sexual misconduct allegations swirl around, emerging fast and furious, the effect on Mrs May’s grip on her party is very hard to read (“grip” is used here in a mainly satirical sense). The press are focussed mostly on the Tory benches at the moment, giving Labour an easier ride, but it seems unlikely that there is a party political advantage. Is there a pro or anti Brexit one? This column began to think last week that perhaps the revelations were, shall we say, not unrelated to Downing Street, with the Prime Minister benefitting from some Tory beasts weakened. But now, we acknowledge that we may have been watching too much House of Cards (alas, poor House of Cards, soap of scandal brought down by scandal).
But if this conspiracy theory had any grounding in reality, it has gone very wrong; rumours and accusations spread ever more thickly and Mrs May’s authority, like Mr Major’s twenty years ago, looks as though sex scandals will erode it to a point of no recovery. Those kitten heels just land in the mire with every step. The lady has the unmistakeable air of a lost cause. But will her party make her go? In its heart, the Westminster Conservative tendency debated that the day after the election, only to conclude that there was no immediate alternative to leaving the lady in place – partly because there was no alternative, at least acceptable to the warring barons, and partly to use the strategy developed in the First World War of utilising a tin hat to see the strength of the enemy. The tin hat ended up as a colander but at least those under it survived. Mrs May has become a colander rather earlier than expected; the question is how long she can survive.
There is a mood in the Tory Party that the end now approaches; that even if the party can struggle through to the next election it will then lose; that the only issue is Corbyn sooner or Corbyn later. There is a singular lack of will on the front benches to grip anything, to take control of the agenda in the slightest way, to produce initiatives of any sort. The impression is of a party exhausted by the struggle, consumed by self-hatred (surpassed only by its member’s hatred for each other).
Conservative Central Office has not asked the Shaw Sheet for advice, and maybe it won’t. But in 1940, when there was a similar crisis and a similar mood, the party did the right thing (though as Six Minutes in May points out, almost accidentally). It forced the dumping of its leader and brought in a determined new one, a fountain of energy and ideas and fighting spirit. There is always an alternative, the trick is to choose the right one. The country needs robust and determined leadership; the present situation goes beyond party politics. That does not mean it has to be Boris, but the time has come for a change and if a conventional candidate of sufficient merit cannot be found then maybe it has to be an unconventional one. Mrs May is too damaged and too weakened to carry on; the inevitable has come sooner than expected and the Tory Party, for itself and for its country, must make its move.
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Six Minutes in May, by Nicolas Shakespeare, published by Harvill Secker at £20, is out now