From September 1939 to April 1940 the world had held its breath as the ‘Phoney War’ unfolded. Poland had been subjugated by Hitler and Britain and France, which had both gone to war over the German invasion, had been able to offer negligible assistance. Then, in April, Hitler had invaded Denmark and Norway – and attempts by Britain and France to provide military assistance, when they lacked any significant air power in the region, had proved to be weak and ineffective.
In Britain these developments brought to a head criticism of the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose past track record of appeasing Hitler offered little comfort to many in the country when the war was hotting up. In the British Parliament the ‘Norway Debate’ was as much about Chamberlain’s position as it was about the conduct of the campaign in Norway.
Neville Chamberlain was severely criticised in the debate and only won the vote because many Conservative MPs had abstained.
Churchill had ended his speech in the Norway Debate with the words:
… let pre-war feuds die; let personal quarrels be forgotten, and let us keep our hatreds for the common enemy. Let party interest be ignored, let all our energies be harnessed, let the whole ability and forces of the nation be hurled into the struggle, and let all the strong horses be pulling on the collar.
Chamberlain concluded that he would have to resign, even though he had won the vote. He recognised the need to allow a new Prime Minister to form a National Government, in which all the political Parties would be represented.
The Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax was a strong contender but he ruled himself out because he sat in the Lords and it would be difficult to lead the Commons from there. He probably recognised that he was himself too closely associated with Chamberlain’s policies. The Labour Party leadership intimated to Chamberlain that they were only prepared to serve under Churchill.
The matter was effectively decided by the afternoon of the 9th May. However it depended upon the Labour Party formally agreeing that they would serve under Churchill in a coalition government of national unity. Despite the events of the early hours of the morning in Europe, on the 10th May the most senior figures in the Labour Party took the 11.34am train from Waterloo station out of London. They travelled to Bournemouth on the south coast, where they were about to begin their Party Conference. They stuck rigidly to their procedural rules.
It was not until 5pm that the Labour Leader telegrammed London to say that they would serve under Churchill. Chamberlain immediately went to too see the King and ‘offered’ his resignation. The King then called for Churchill and ‘invited’ him to become Prime Minister. He did not formally assume the role until 6pm.
It was a popular choice in the country, where Churchill’s brilliant oratory resonated, but opinion was sharply divided amongst the political classes, where many thought him too much of a maverick to be a successful leader.
So it was that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on one of the most fateful days in history.