An inspiring leader during the dark days of war, Winston Churchill was losing popularity with the Conservative defeat of the post war years. But despite growing pressure from his cabinet colleagues Churchill chose his own time to relinquish the office of Prime Minister.
All post-war Conservative party leaders have to an extent been subject to pressure to retire by anxious subordinates – Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath, with Margaret Thatcher being perhaps only the next in a long line. Yet one, Winston Churchill, calmly evaded such prompting from concerned colleagues, treating their manoeuvres with quiet disdain. Hugh Massingham, wrote in 1954, 'Sir Winston holds all the trumps. He cannot be hurried, and there is no one, inside or outside the Cabinet, who is strong enough, or tough enough, to make him leave one moment before he wishes.' But what is even more remarkable than Churchill's tenacity was the failure of the Press to give any hint of the high-level discussions amongst Cabinet Ministers to induce the old man to retire. It is highly probable that Churchill's friends amongst newspaper proprietors in particular Lords Beaverbrook, Bracken and Camrose played a part in discouraging stories, as they did about Churchill's stroke in the summer of 1953. It is only now, when witnesses at last feel able to talk, and unpublished diaries and letters have become available on both sides of the Atlantic, that it is possible to piece together the events of Churchill's last years at Number Ten.
Churchill had been deeply distressed by the landslide Labour victory of 1945, but so high was his personal standing that scarcely anyone in the Party at this stage considered, even in his most private thoughts, that Churchill should retire. As the months in Opposition wore on, however, Churchill remained aloof from most of his colleagues in Parliament and from the discussions on the reformulation of policy, based at the Conservative Research Department, that were being presided over by R.A. Butler.
Two years after the 1945 Election, senior party figures met to discuss the question of Churchill's future. The meeting, which took place in the Knightsbridge home of the senior Conservative, Harry Crookshank, was shrouded in mystery. So secret indeed was the meeting that only one person present wrote about it, the then Chief Whip, James Stuart: '[The house] was thought to be a discreet place as it was desirable to avoid the attention of the Press. I can think of nowhere better suited to such a purpose. As you entered through the heavily leaded glass door – the glass was of colours calculated to obscure all light – the catacomb-like gloom was relieved only by one small weak electric bulb, like the light on the tabernacle "dimly burning". We gathered in an upstairs drawing-room decorated with screens, Eastern objets d'art , and uncomfortable Victorian furniture. It was all very serious and intense.' As a result of their deliberations Stuart was nominated to discuss with Churchill the question of his retirement. He received a chilly reception and the unrest that gave rise to the meeting petered out.
Two years later, in February 1949, unrest again carne to the fore. A critical by-election was to take place at South Hammersmith in London. A few days before the poll, Churchill made an incautious speech in the House in which he attacked Labour's 'profligate expenditure'. The Press pounced on it. Within a few hours newspapers were on sale on street corners in the constituency proclaiming that the Conservatives would severely curtail the welfare state. The impact of this on voters was uncertain, but the election result was hard fact: the Conservatives suffered a humiliating blow. An article severely critical of Churchill appeared in the Daily Telegraph . He was very angry and phoned the Editor Arthur Watson from the Hague: 'Is the Daily Telegraph deserting me?', he thundered. In the Party there was uproar at the result – and this time it was not restricted to the leading members of the Shadow Cabinet. Churchill attended a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Conservative back benchers where he was pained to hear members being sharply critical of his leadership. Their resentment was not sufficiently great however that it could not be quenched by his rallying words, and in the next few months the disaffection again subsided.
The Party leaders, however, unbeknown probably to Churchill, were investigating the possibility of life without their leader: amongst the then Party Chairman Lord Woolton's private papers can be found details of a confidential survey of public opinion, recording the invaluable and surprising information that if Churchill were to retire as Conservative leader, the popular vote for the Party would be unlikely to be cut. If, in another crisis, Churchill were to claim that his departure from politics would bring disaster at the polls for the Conservatives he could be countered with this powerful piece of ammunition.
As Labour's remaining months in power ticked by, a reaction set in against the Government. With it, dissatisfaction amongst the Conservatives with Churchill receded. The February 1950 Election did not bring the long hoped for Conservative victory, but the Labour majority was cut from 146 of 1945 to 5. In the next eighteen months, the Party rallied around Churchill. It was an unhappy period for Labour, during which little constructive legislation was passed, and it lost two of its most brilliant Ministers, Sir Stafford Cripps and Ernest Bevin – both resigned through ill health. In addition Aneurin Bevan resigned on a disagreement over policy. It was obvious that the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, could not long hold off Churchill's call for an early Election, and when it came in October 1951, the Conservatives were returned to power with a majority of seventeen.
Although there was widespread disappointment at the small size of the Conservative majority in the House of Commons, the very fact of victory was sufficient to banish talk of removing Churchill. As the months progressed, however, discontent revived. Not only did many of the old guard disapprove of Churchill's conciliatory gestures and statements towards Liberals and Labour, but there was a substantial body of sympathy for the position of Anthony Eden, heir apparent since at least 1942, who had again become Foreign Secretary in 1951.
Disaffection centred on Crookshank, the new leader of the House, Stuart, by now Scottish Secretary, the Commonwealth Secretary Lord Salisbury, and Stuart's successor as Chief Whip, Patrick Buchan-Hepburn. Together they met in mid June 1952. The remaining chief plotter, Woolton, was not in attendance. How, they asked themselves, could Churchill be induced to make way for Eden (who throughout refused to become involved in their discussions)? The question baffled them as they sat gathered around the table at Crookshank's Pont Street mansion. The question indeed was to prove equally insoluble over the three years that followed. A bewildering array of different tacks were tried, all of which were equally unsuccessful.
Initially Churchill had intended to remain at Number Ten just a few months, sufficient time to preside over the removal of war-time controls, retained by Labour after 1945, and the re-introduction of certain commodities he considered essential to civilised living, like proper houses to live in (as opposed to 'prefabs') and red meat to eat. But the death in February 1952 of King George VI provided a fresh pretext for prolongation: surely he must remain at his post until the young Queen, Elizabeth, could be crowned and securely installed in her onerous job? The cabal secretly bewailed the fact, but kept their peace.
Meanwhile fresh ground for their disenchantment was provided by Churchill's announcement, following the death of Soviet dictator Stalin in March 1953, of his renewed enthusiasm to have a high level summit meeting with the Russians. Having been the great leader in war, Churchill now wished to go down in history as the leader who brought a reconciliation between East and West.
Eden was becoming despondent. He found the period of waiting and uncertainty increasingly trying, a position exacerbated by his anxiety that, after years of waiting for the one job he had long coveted, he might be pipped at the post by a man for whom he felt a distinct coolness, Butler. During the war Eden's work at the Foreign Office had been squarely in the public's eye, but after 1951 his contribution there was frequently eclipsed by the achievement of Butler at the Treasury. Within only a few months of the Election, theSpectator was reporting that Butler was now seen as the next Tory Prime Minister 'if, for any unhappy reason, Mr Eden fell out'. A further anxiety was gnawing away at Eden: his health. In April 1953, the spring after his marriage (his second, the source of much adverse comment at the time) to Churchill's niece Clarissa in August 1952, Eden entered the London Clinic for an operation to remove some gallstones. The operation was not a success. A second operation failed to repair the damage; medical opinion now talked about the unlikelihood ever of a full recovery. In early June Eden, by now a desperately worried man, went to Boston to be operated on by the famous surgeon Dr Richard Cattell. The 'unhappy reason', foreseen by the Spectator , appeared now a distinct possibility.
Churchill, like Butler, did not feel wholly upset at the temporary removal of Eden. For although Churchill felt affection for his heir, his departure from the scene provided a pretext for the older man to remain in office. After all, with Eden incapacitated, how could he possibly now resign after the Queen's coronation in June as he had planned: surely that would be to deprive Eden of his prize?
If Crookshank, Salisbury and their friends were unhappy at having to accept the undoubted validity of Churchill's argument, they were in despair about how to react to an event that took place exactly three weeks after the Coronation in Westminster Abbey. On the evening of June 23rd a dinner was held for the Italian Prime Minister, Signor de Gasperi. Churchill made a witty speech in which he talked of a previous Latin visitor to British shores, Julius Caesar. Minutes later, as guests were filing out of the room, he slumped back in his chair. His son-in-law Christopher Soames ushered the waiters outside as the Prime Minister could not walk properly, and the old man was manoeuvred to his own private rooms. He had had a serious stroke.
Disobeying the orders of his doctor, Lord Moran, to rest, Churchill insisted on attending a Cabinet meeting the next morning, an act both foolhardy but also of immense courage. What thoughts ran through the minds of his colleagues as they witnessed his white puffy face and slurred voice is left to conjecture, but, the senior civil servant in attendance, responsible for recording minutes, later wrote: 'He could hardly shape his words to introduce the subject, he gave no lead and reached no conclusion...'. He struggled on, scarcely comprehending what he was called upon to do. His colleagues sat in dismay, reluctant to speak at all. By the weekend he was in a worse condition and was moved down to Chartwell. The expectation was that he might well die. A drastic plan, largely at the instigation of Churchill's aide Sir John Colville, was hastily put together: were the old man not to come through, Salisbury was to become acting Prime Minister, pending the return to health of Eden, an event about which there were similar doubts to those about Churchill's own recovery.
With Eden's absence, there was nothing that the plotters could do but pursue a course for which they had little relish, to close ranks and to connive that there was nothing seriously wrong with Churchill. Butler had now teamed up with the senior Cabinet figures who felt Churchill must go, and he joined Salisbury in forcing Moran to change the medical bulletin about the Prime Minister's state of health: Moran felt some explanation was needed as to why Churchill could not perform his official duties, and had drafted a communique saying that Churchill had suffered a 'circulatory disturbance', which he thought a much less damaging admission than saying he had had a stroke. But this was still far too strong for Butler and Salisbury, and as a result of their intervention a far milder communique was issued to the Press.
In the event, however, the Prime Minister slowly regained strength. Within two months he presided over a full Cabinet – a waste of time, just to show he could do it, Crookshank wrote in his diary. Eden meanwhile was feeling very anxious about the future. His third operation, in June in Boston, had gone extraordinarily well, and at the end of July he passed through London en route for a two month recuperative holiday on the Mediterranean. Encouraged by his old friend, Salisbury, Eden went to see Churchill at Chequers at the beginning of August all set to insist that the Prime Minister gave him a precise date for the handover. According to a letter Eden wrote to Sir Walter Monckton, the Minister of Labour, immediately following the meeting, the exchange was pleasant but 'in no way conclusive'. That was no understatement: Eden had not even brought up the specific question of Churchill's retirement.
Monckton himself had dinner with the Prime Minister in mid August. With his mind much on the cricket he had been watching during the summer, Monckton wrote a few days after the meeting: 'I think that nothing is decided yet and all too much is fluid. The captain is delaying a decision upon both the principal points, the future of the captaincy and the date of the Test Match [the General Election] until the middle of next month'.
The captain was as good as his word, and unveiled his plans in September. But to the horror of his team, Churchill began to talk of postponing his retirement until the Queen's return from her Commonwealth tour in May 1954, or even until the following year. As his Ministers witnessed his gradually returning strength during the long summer weeks, they did not know what to think; relief at the recovery of a man for whom they had deep respect, or fear at the renewed ability of that indomitable will to hang on to the reins.
Eden returned to London at the beginning of October. Now Churchill's raison d'źtre for remaining in office had evaporated. The two men met alone, but again Eden could not bring himself to insist on a firm statement from Churchill. The old man told him he would quit if unable to do his duty, but would give no clear idea of his future plans. Eden, still feeling far from fully fit – indeed it is doubtful if he ever fully recovered from his operations in 1953 – did not feel up to a showdown. After the talk, Eden invited Salisbury, Butler and Monckton to meet him to discuss the problem. They considered various plans of action. Salisbury himself had just written to Churchill saying he was worried about the high average age of the Cabinet and that he was prepared to stand down to make way for younger men, a thinly disguised hint which met with no response. But none of the Ministers could think of any way of easing out Churchill other than an ultimatum, which at that stage they were not prepared to risk. So the Queen left in November for her six month Commonwealth tour, and as a changeover would have been unthinkable in her absence, Churchill was ensured a prolongation of his period in office.
The winter months of early 1954 saw Churchill in low spirits. He would sit for long periods alone, gazing vacantly forward into an imagined abyss. He had come to dread the vacuum in his life when he left office, the loneliness and depression that would follow when he left the centre of the stage. Besides, he also believed, deeply, that there was much to be gained by a dialogue between the Premiers of East and West, and that as the sole survivor of the war-time 'Big Three' (Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt), he had a unique role to play.
At this juncture a fresh consideration, much aired in the Press, was coming to the fore – the timing of the next General Election. Woolton, as Party Chairman, was particularly concerned about Churchill's decline in popularity with the electorate. In the autumn of 1953, 56 per cent of those interviewed in a Gallup Survey said they were satisfied with him as Prime Minister: by April this had fallen to 48 per cent. That month senior Cabinet figures were called together by Churchill to discuss election dates. Churchill calmly delivered the bombshell that he intended not to resign on the Queen's return in May but to remain in office for at least another year, and that they must take this fact into consideration when planning election strategy. This confirmed his colleagues worst suspicions, but what could they do?
From April to July talk of an imminent handover was dismissed because Eden was away acting as co-Chairman with Molotov of the international conference on Indo-China at Geneva. Meanwhile back in London tension reached breaking point when, following a trip to see President Eisenhower in America, Churchill declared his intention of going to see the Soviet leaders. Salisbury and Crookshank threatened resignation, as did Churchill himself, saying he would go to the country on the issue and make known the divisions in the Cabinet. Oliver Lyttelton, the Colonial Secretary, wrote to Eden in Switzerland of the dilernma Cabinet Ministers faced if their opposition to Churchill's peace initiative (which they realised would also have entailed a long extension of his period in office) were made known: 'We should be represented as a Party of shell-shocked Tories headed by a reactionary Marquis [Salisbury] who had gone out shooting before September 1st and had shot down the Dove of Peace as it got up from the Turnips'.
This crisis blew over following a surprise initiative from the Russians, and harmony was again restored. But the Cabinet was still unable to tie Churchill down. He told them he would go definitely in September, then there was the talk about him retiring on his eightieth birthday on November 30th. This would have been the ideal exit, but he dodged it and argued instead that the huge number of presents he had received showed his popular appeal and value in the next General Election. This was too much for his colleagues: they would no longer hold their peace. At the Cabinet meeting on December 15th Churchill was provoked into saying to the assembled Ministers: 'I know you are trying to get rid of me but it is up to me to go to the Queen and hand her my resignation and yours – but I won't do it.' There was a stunned silence and ineffectual ripostes were made before the meeting broke up. A secret discussion followed later that day at the Chancellor's official residence at Number Eleven Downing Street with Butler, Macmillan, Crookshank and Stuart in attendance. They were very grave about the position, and went their separate ways for the Christmas break with a sense of great uncertainty about the future.
In the next few months secret meetings were held at Crookshank's Pont Street home and in the House of Commons, to discuss, in Crookshank's words, 'the same old topic of getting rid of Winston'. They need not have bothered. Of his own accord he had decided in February to quit in early April, following a dinner that had been arranged at Number Ten for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. There was some last minute wobbling, temporary loss of nerve by Churchill as he contemplated the future: as Butler put it: 'We've got the fish on the hook but he hasn't been gaffed yet'. But this gives a misleading impression: it was not the Cabinet Ministers who put Churchill on the hook. Despite all their efforts and deliberations he showed the considerable potential power of the Prime Minister to remain in office despite the almost united opposition of his Cabinet. When Churchill drove to Buckingham Palace on April 5th, 1955 to tender his resignation, unlike many Premiers who followed that same route, he had the undoubted satisfaction of knowing he was going at his own speed.
By Anthony Seldon