Raymond Cannon gave an excellent talk at AACI Netanya on “Churchill’s rivals,” an analysis of the surprisingly precarious political position of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of Great Britain during WWII, even though he has become one of the most lionized politicians in history. He explained how this resulted largely from the continued opposition of the appeasers to Hitler, Churchill’s predecessor Neville Chamberlain and his supporter Lord Halifax, and the individual maneuvering of Sir Stafford Cripps and Lord Beaverbrook. This analysis was taken mainly from the book “Ministers at War: Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet” by Jonathan Schneer (Basic Books, 2015). This is my summary of his talk.
Neville Chamberlain managed to remain as PM even up to 9 months after war was declared in Sept 1939, although opposition to him in his own Conservative party gradually mounted. But, the favorite to succeed him was not Churchill, who many regarded as a war monger and a failure after the fiasco of the Galipoli campaign of WWI, that Churchill had been responsible for and for which he had not been forgiven. The favorite was Lord Halifax, Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary, who had been responsible for the policy of appeasement to Hitler. It certainly did not make sense that Chamberlain should be replaced by someone who was one of his main supporters and with the same views. But, the majority of the Parliamentary Conservative Party and King George VI preferred Halifax.
But, Halifax himself was unsure what to do, faced with the rapid onslaught of German forces across Europe in 1940, it was apparent to even the most ardent appeaser that this policy would not work. So Churchill jumped into the fray and managed to wrest the premiership away from Halifax and for himself. Churchill’s oratory, not only in Parliament, but also in speeches around the country made a significant difference. So in May 1940, just as France was falling to the Germans, King George VI reluctantly appointed Churchill as PM.
But, once appointed PM, Churchill was forced to form a national coalition War Cabinet which contained some of the same people who opposed him, namely Conservatives Chamberlain and Halifax, as well as one of his own supporters Anthony Eden, and from the Labor Party, Stafford Cripps, Ernest Bevin and Clement Atlee. At that time, since the Conservative Party was still largely supporting the Halifax-Chamberlain position, Churchill depended for his political survival on his political enemies, namely Cripps and Atlee.
Halifax was still of the opinion, even as the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk occurred, that in order to try to preserve Britain and the Empire it would be best to appease Hitler by accepting his control of the European continent. Churchill and his supporters were dead against this and Halifax could not get a majority. Also at the same time in Nov 1940 Chamberlain died and so Halifax lost his main supporter. Churchill then removed Halifax from the political scene by appointing him British Ambassador to the USA.
At the same time the Labor members of the War Cabinet were not so interested in maintaining British control of the Empire, and in fact were busy laying the foundation for giving independence to India and other colonies, as well as changing Britain’s social welfare system. These went directly against Churchill’s own policies, and so the post-war political clash between the Conservative and Labor parties was being fought out during the prosecution of WWII.
Stafford Cripps was the complete opposite to Churchill, although he was an aristocrat by birth, he was a strong socialist and an ardent Christian and a teetotler. He and Churchill did not get along personally, and there is little doubt that from the first he was trying to replace Churchill. Once again Churchill managed to out-maneuver him by appointing him Ambassador to the Soviet Union, a position he could not refuse.
Finally, Churchill brought in Lord Beaverbrook, a Conservative newspaper owner, whose papers were crucial in garnering support for the Conservative and national position of prosecuting the war against Germany at all costs. Churchill appointed Beaverbrook as Minister of Aircraft Production, and although without any experience in that capacity he was amazingly successful. Aircraft production in the UK skyrocketed as a result of Beaverbrook’s single-minded efforts, and soon they had more aircraft than pilots. British air production was twice that of the Luftwaffe.
But, Beaverbrook, who was Churchill’s ally, soon appeared to want to replace him. He started a campaign in his newspapers and in speeches around the country of giving support to the Soviets under Stalin in order to open a second front. The German invasion of Russia in June, 1941, lent credence to this approach, but after the British defeats in Norway, Dunkirk and N. Africa, Britain was in no position to supply Russia. So Churchill sent Beaverbrook off to the USA to persuade Roosevelt to supply the Soviets, and in so doing removed him as a potential rival.
From a very precarious political position Churchill managed to retain control of his War Cabinet and by using his considerable political and oratorical skills he galvanized the Government and the country into amazing sacrifices that presaged the defeat of Nazi Germany.