On the 25th Winston Churchill had returned to Britain midway through the Potsdam conference to be present for the results of the General Election. Throughout the war he had led a government of National coalition, containing members of the opposition parties. He had not enjoyed unanimous support throughout the war – in 1942 he had faced two votes of no confidence in his leadership.
His wartime achievement was no longer in any doubt. But he, and the greater part of the Conservative Party, had been focussing almost exclusively on the war, and had neglected the mood of the ordinary man and woman in the country. The “Socialists” – the Labour Party – had developed some innovative policies that were directly aimed at improving the lot of the average citizen. The introduction of a true ‘Welfare State’, a ‘National Health Service’ as a well as the nationalisation of key industries had huge appeal to people who wanted not just to win the war but to build a better world for themselves after it.
In an age without opinion polls Churchill and many other Conservatives had failed to see that the mood of the country had dramatically turned against them. There must have been subtle signs present, because they finally crystallised in Churchill’s mind as he slept:
The latest view of the Conservative Central Office was that we should retain a substantial majority. I had not burdened myself unduly with the subject while occupied with the grave business of the Conference. On the whole I accepted the view of the party managers, and went to bed in the belief that the British people would wish me to continue my work.
My hope was that it would be possible to reconstitute the National Coalition Government in the proportions of the new House of Commons. Thus slumber.
However, just before dawn I woke suddenly with a sharp stab of almost physical pain. A hitherto subconscious conviction that we were beaten broke forth and dominated my mind.
All the pressure of great events, on and against which I had mentally so long maintained my “flying speed”, would cease and I should fall. The power to shape the future would be denied me. The knowledge and experience I had gathered, the authority and goodwill I had gained in so many countries, would vanish. I was discontented at the prospect, and turned over at once to sleep again.
I did not wake till nine o’clock, and when I went into the Map Room the first results had begun to come in. They were, as I now expected, unfavourable. By noon it was clear that the Socialists would have a majority. At luncheon my wife said to me, “It may well be a blessing in disguise.” I replied, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.”
The Labour Party had won 393 seats in Parliament while the Conservative Party slumped to 197. The result was so decisive that Churchill resigned that day and by evening Clement Attlee had seen the King and had been invited to form a government. As Prime Minister he would return to Potsdam the next day, as the new leader of the British delegation.
Churchill left one final message to the public, upon which he concludes his memoirs of World War II :
26 Ju1y 45
The decision of the British people has been recorded in the votes counted to—day. I have therefore laid down the charge which was placed upon me in darker times.
I regret, that I have not been permitted to finish the work against Japan. For this however all plans and preparations have been made, and the results may come much quicker than we have hitherto been entitled to expect.
Immense responsibilities abroad and at home fall upon the new Government, and we must all hope that they will be successful in bearing them.
It only remains for me to express to the British people, for whom I have acted in these perilous years, my profound gratitude for the unflinching, unswerving support which they have given me during my task, and for the many expressions of kindness which they have shown towards their servant.