How Winston lunched his way to the finest hour

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NOT ONLY does tomorrow commemorate VE Day: Wednesday is the 55th anniversary of Winston Churchill's accession to the premiership. The latter event is more mysterious than the former. The Prime Minister was Neville Chamberlain. His government was nominally National, really Conservative. The Foreign Secretary was Lord Halifax, of whom the Labour leader, CR Attlee, once remarked: "Queer bird, Halifax. Very humorous, all hunting and Holy Communion." The First Lord of the Admiralty was Churchill, who was at least as responsible as Chamberlain for the disastrous Norwegian campaign of April 1940 which was the proximate cause of Chamberlain's departure.

King George VI wanted Chamberlain to remain Prime Minister, but of a true coalition government. If he was to be forced out, the King preferred Halifax as a successor.

There is a myth that it was the Labour Party which made Churchill Prime Minister. Most recently it has been repeated by Barbara Castle and Roy Hattersley. The truth is more complicated. Certainly it was Attlee who was responsible for the Norway debate. He demanded two Commons days on the failure of the Narvik expedition, to open on 7 May.

The debate was held on the motion for the adjournment. The parliamentary party decided to force a vote, which Herbert Morrison (with Hugh Dalton, a supporter of Halifax) announced when he opened on the second day. At the end of the debate, 33 Conservatives and eight others voted with the opposition. Sixty abstained. The vote was 281 for the government, 200 against. A united party would have given Chamberlain a majority of 213 rather than of 81.

Next morning, 9 May, Lord Beaverbrook had a meeting with Churchill. Beaverbrook was then a press proprietor merely: he was to join the War Cabinet a year later. He asked Churchill whether he intended to serve under Halifax. Churchill replied that he would serve under any minister who was capable of prosecuting the war. This reply disappointed Beaverbrook. Brendan Bracken, a crony of Beaverbrook's and a Tory MP aged 39, then intervened. He advised Churchill to remain silent if asked to serve under Halifax. After much argument, Churchill agreed.

Churchill also saw Anthony Eden, then Dominions Secretary, on that morning. While shaving, he rehearsed to Eden the events of the previous evening in the House. He thought that a coalition government must be formed but that Chamberlain would not be able to bring in Labour. Later Churchill lunched with Eden and Kingsley Wood, the Lord Privy Seal, who was to become Chancellor on 12 May. Wood thought Churchill should succeed Chamberlain and urged him to make plain his willingness to do so. He warned that Chamberlain would favour Halifax as a successor and would ask Churchill to agree to this. He advised: "Don't agree, and don't say anything." Eden later wrote that he was "shocked" to find Wood talking thus because "he had been so much Chamberlain's man". But it was "good counsel and I seconded it".

At 4.30 that afternoon, Chamberlain met Churchill and Halifax at No 10. Chamberlain said the "main thing" was national unity. Labour must come into the government. If it refused to enter under his leadership, he was ready to resign.

Attlee and his deputy, Arthur Greenwood, then arrived. They sat on one side of the table with the Prime Minister and his two colleagues on the other. Attlee said: "I have to be quite frank with you, Prime Minister. Our party will not serve under you. They don't want you, and in my view the country doesn't want you." Attlee thought that this, though "true", was "very rude". Churchill, on the other hand, considered that "the conversation was most polite".

Attlee was firm in his recollection that, after Chamberlain had made his appeal, Churchill had urged him and Greenwood to come in under the Prime Minister. He was then asked whether Labour would participate in a coalition under someone else. He said he thought it would but that, as the party was holding its conference at Bournemouth, he would "go down and ask the delegates". It was agreed that he should ask two questions. First, would Labour serve under Chamberlain? Second, would it serve under someone else? The two Labour leaders then left.

The three Conservatives remained, to be joined by the chief whip, David Margesson. Chamberlain said he had made up his mind that he must go and that Halifax or Churchill should succeed him. Halifax was mentioned as more acceptable. But he would serve under either. Margesson believed that party unity would be impossible under Chamberlain. Feeling in the House was "veering towards" Churchill. Halifax declared it would be a "hopeless position" if a peer became Prime Minister. He would not be leading in the Commons and, in any case, Churchill would be in charge of defence. He thought Churchill would be the better choice. Churchill "did not demur". He was "very kind and polite" but showed that he thought that this was the "right solution".

That evening Churchill dined at Admiralty House with the Liberal leader Sir Archibald Sinclair, Eden, Bracken and the scientist FA Lindemann. He said he "thought it plain" that Chamberlain would advise the King to send for him, as Halifax "did not wish to succeed". Later that night he telephoned his son Randolph and said: "I think I shall be Prime Minister tomorrow."

On 9-10 May, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. The attack made Chamberlain waver. He told Wood that the night's events made it necessary for him to remain at his post. Wood replied that, on the contrary, they made it all the more necessary to have a national government.

Attlee and Greenwood had not travelled immediately to Bournemouth. With Dalton, they went on the morning of the 10th. In the Highcliff Hotel they met the national executive, which agreed unanimously to answer "No" to Chamberlain's first question and "Yes" to his second. A resolution was passed stating that Labour should take its "share of responsibility" as a full partner in a new government which, under a new Prime Minister, commanded "the confidence of the nation". As he was about to leave the hotel for the station, Attlee received a telephone call from Downing Street: was he in a position to answer the Prime Minister's two questions? He said he was, did so and read out the resolution at dictation speed.

The War Cabinet met in the afternoon. Chamberlain said he had now received Labour's answers to his questions, which had been passed to him while the Cabinet was in session. He read out the executive's resolution. The minutes recorded: "In the light of this answer, he [Chamberlain] had reached the conclusion that the right course was that he should at once tender his resignation to the King. He proposed to do so that evening." This he did. George VI asked for his advice, and Chamberlain recommended Churchill.