Monday, May 28, 2007

The Churchill Series – May 28, 2007

(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

I want to build on something in last Friday’s post. My aim is to illustrate how carefully, sensitively and skillfully Churchill began on May 11, 1940 to assert the powers of the Prime Minister’s office to which he’d been appointed the previous day as the Germans began their blitzkrieg attack in the West.

In Their Finest Hour, volume two of his “History of World War II” (Houghton Mifflin) Churchill writes:

Early on the morning of May 11 I sent a message to Mr. Chamberlain: “No one changes houses for a month.” This avoided petty inconveniences during the crisis of the battle. I continued to live at Admiralty House and made its map room and the fine rooms downstairs my temporary headquarters. (pg. 10)
I remarked:
As far as I know, Churchill’s “no one changes houses” directive applied to all cabinet members of Chamberlain’s former government. It was very important not only for “avoiding inconveniences during the crisis of the battle,” but for showing regard for the feelings of outgoing cabinet members whose posts came with housing. That was a very important consideration at a time when Churchill was seeking to build a coalition national unity government.
It was that, but it was more.

This was Churchill’s first directive to the other members of the Cabinet. When he gave it his fitness to hold the premiership was questioned by many of them. Some hoped he would be a brief interim premier. They were ready to challenge his authority at the first opportunity.

Churchill knew that which I believe helps explain why his first directive was not only sensitive and sensible but required that nothing be done by the outgoing ministers who would soon be shuffled to other cabinet posts or denied a place in it. And since most of the posts in the incoming cabinet hadn’t been filled yet, who was there to complain?

The PM’s first directive was agreed to by all.

Churchill promptly followed his “no move” directive with other exercises of his authority that reveal a skilled and experienced political leader deftly gathering into his hands the powers of office . Tomorrow I post on how he did that. I think you’ll agree that "the Last Lion" was also a wise, old fox.