Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister
After the failure of his appeasement strategy, Neville Chamberlain was, in political and actual terms, living on borrowed time. The country had lost confidence in the man who had so clearly been fooled by Hitler. Yet when WWII started in September 1939 Chamberlain somehow remained in power, with nobody wishing to rock the boat, and perhaps with no obvious candidate on hand to replace him.
Chamberlain appointed that missing candidate himself, making Winston Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939. As action was mainly naval during the phoney war, the earliest phase of the conflict, Churchill had the chance to shine. He was already identified by the public as the one who got it right about the dangers of German rearmament, and there was pressure from the British people to bring him back into government, something that cannot have been easy for Chamberlain.
In April 1940 Churchill was made chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee, his genius for organisation and his sheer energy having already making him stand out in Chamberlain’s cabinet.
The delays in implementing plans to take the strategically important town of Narvik in still neutral Norway allowed the Germans to invade that country in April 1940, securing vital mineral resources and ports for the Axis Powers. On May 8 the Labour Party demanded a debate on the fiasco. This rapidly turned into a censure vote, and when 30 Conservatives voted against their leader, and 60 more abstained, Chamberlain had no option but to resign, doing so on May 10 1940.
A hasty meeting was called by Chamberlain, who, much against protocol, wanted to determine who should succeed him. Chamberlain discussed the matter with Churchill, and with Lord Halifax – who was seen as the most likely candidate, Churchill having made plenty of enemies in his political career, and with a history of switching parties that endeared him to few in the political world. Also present at the meeting was the Chief Whip, David Margesson.
The reasons for the decision that came out of the meeting have been much debated: Lord Halifax may have ruled himself out, citing the problems of leading the country from the Lords; he may simply have not felt up to the task; Margesson’s input may have been crucial in the decision to push Churchill forward. George VI , having been advised of the situation, called upon Winston Churchill to be his new Prime Minister, and to form a new government.
At the age of 65, when most are looking at the very least to slow their activities, or more likely to withdraw from the world of work, Churchill became Prime Minister with the country facing its greatest danger for 1,000 years. In November that same year Chamberlain died, riddled with cancer and exhausted by failure.