Churchill forms Wartime Coalition Government
On May 8 1940 Neville Chamberlain asked the Labour Party to join him in forming a coalition government, but Labour leaders, like much of the rest of the British people, had lost confidence in him as Prime Minister. When Churchill became Prime Minister two days later, after Chamberlain was forced to resign, he had the same strategy in mind. On May 13 he unveiled the new war cabinet, a coalition of those he regarded as the most energetic and talented available to him, regardless of party.
This was a time of almost unprecedented national crisis, and Winston Churchill saw very clearly that to defend the country a coalition was the only moral choice. His own political history gives an interesting background to this decision: he had switched parties when Liberal views on free trade chimed better with his own than the Conservatives at that period. After losing his seat in 1922, he re-entered Parliament in 1924 as an independent ‘constitutional anti-socialist’ candidate, being brought into government as Chancellor by Stanley Baldwin before he rejoined the Tory Party in 1925.
So in bringing Labour leaders into the 1940 government Churchill was going against a deeply held dislike, disdain even for their socialist views. Two of the Labour men became part of his five-man war cabinet, the inner core of his government charged with preparing the country for defence and ultimately for victory: these were Clement Attlee as Lord Privy Seal, and Arthur Greenwood , Minister without Portfolio. Ernest Bevin , head of the Transport and General Workers Union, was made Minister of Labour, a strange bedfellow with one of his de facto closest collaborators in the war effort, newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook , Minister of Aircraft Production.
Another clear sign of change to all who might have doubted his will to sweep away the Chamberlain mentality was his appointment of Anthony Eden as Secretary of State for War – Eden had for years been a thorn in Chamberlain’s side within the Conservative Party. Once the government was established Eden would replace Lord Halifax, a Chamberlain man, as Foreign Secretary.
Herbert Morrison, Hugh Dalton, and Stafford Cripps, other leading lights in the Labour movement, were brought into positions in his government too. A further mark of intent in the original coalition line-up was that Churchill himself was Minister for Defence and head of the Defence Committee, as well as Prime Minister. His ministers would be expected to provide policy, but also to get intimately involved in the mechanics of their departments to drive through the change and inspiration needed to overcome the Nazi threat.
As he faced the House on May 13 this absolute focus on the goal of victory was summed up by one of his most famous phrases: “I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
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