(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)
In the past few series posts I’ve sought 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. During the first weeks of his premiership there were many who questioned his fitness to hold the office. They were ready “at the instant” to join in plotting to replace him.
That may be hard for some to believe today, but Churchill was aware of it at the time. He knew especially that within the Conservative Party Chamberlain still had many supporters, a good number of whom were Cabinet officers whom Churchill had not yet had time to shuffle to other, less important posts or deny a place in his Cabinet.
Knowing all of that, on the morning of May 11 Churchill wrote a letter to the man he had just succeeded, Neville Chamberlain, a proud, really vain, man who had not resigned willingly and still commended considerable support within the Party as did Churchill’s rival for the premiership, Lord Edward Halifax, at the time Foreign Secretary.
Churchill’s letter is a masterpiece. It’s sensitive, generous to Chamberlain and reveals the carefulness, subtlety and wisdom with which Churchill began to exercise the powers of his new office.
After giving Chamberlain an account of meetings he’d just had, Churchill told Chamberlain that he had directed that no Cabinet officer would give up any housing quarters that came with the office for 30 days.
This was a break with customary practice which was that outgoing Cabinet officers vacate their housing quarters within a day or two of giving back their seals of office. In the case of Chamberlain, Churchill’s directive meant he could remain in the housing quarters at 10 Downing Street.
Churchill’s directive, which he said he was issuing to avoid petty inconveniences during the battle then raging in the Low Countries and France, was sensitive and generous.
And there was more of that to come for Chamberlain, who had agreed to serve in the Cabinet as Lord President of the Council and as a member of a small executive group called the War Cabinet. Churchill’s letter continued:
“As we [two] must work so closely together, I hope you will not find it inconvenient to occupy once again your old quarters which we both know so well in Number 11."Number 11 Downing Street is customarily occupied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It’s on the same side of the street as Number 10. The buildings share a common wall. Both Chamberlain and Churchill had been Chancellors of the Exchequer and lived at Number 11.
In assigning Chamberlain the quarters at Number 11, Churchill is not only being sensitive and generous to Chamberlain. He's arranging matters so that the British people will see the former Prime Minister and "the new man" working together as they literally live side-by-side.
Now that's the way to start building a national unity government, isn't it?
The letter continues and we see Churchill, still sensitive, begin to exercise his powers more forcefully but so carefully and wisely there’s nothing those who might challenge him that day can do but go along with him.
”I do not think there is any necessity for a Cabinet today, as the Armies and other Services are fighting in accordance with pre-arranged plans.Isn’t what Churchill does in those two sentences brilliant! He lets everyone know who’s in charge of calling and cancelling Cabinet meetings; and that he now invites the two men who a week before most Britons considered their country’s two most powerful leaders to come see him at a time and place he sets.
I should be very glad, however, if you and Edward [Halifax] would come to the Admiralty War Room at 12:30 P.M. so that we could look at the maps and talk things over.”
Churchill’s letter is a wonderful example of statesmanship and political savvy working together for the nation’s benefit. And it’s a reminder "The Last Lion" was often “a wise, old fox.”
Excerpts of the letter can be found in Their Finest Hour, volume two of Churchill's “History of World War II” (Houghton Mifflin)(pgs. 10-11)