Sons of their fathers. When the excitable, reckless Churchill engaged the cautious, clear-headed Chamberlain in an epic struggle for the Tory leadership, they were also fighting for family pride

Burying Caesar: Churchill, Chamberlain and the Battle for the Tory Party

Graham Stewart <em>Weide

This is a slightly odd title. Who is burying and who not praising whom? Titles should be simple, not enigmatic, despite publishers' idiotic love of a sound-bite. The contest between Churchill and Chamberlain for the leadership of their party and the prize of the premiership is a fascinating political story. It is well told, admirably written and deeply researched by a first-time author who has made an excellent debut. Of the making of books on the history of the Conservative Party, there seems no end. This will not be the last but it is one of the best so far.

It is, as the author says, two books in one volume. The first deals with the rivals seeking to displace Stanley Baldwin in the party leadership during Ramsay MacDonald's coalition government of 1931-35: Neville Chamberlain - cautious, clear-headed and self-confident - was in office; Winston Churchill - reckless, excitable and equally self-confident - was out. Enemies compared him to Achitophel in Dryden's satire: "A daring pilot in extremity;/Pleased with the danger, when the waves went high/He sought the storm; but for a calm unfit,/ Would steer too nigh the sands to boast his wit."

Both were sons of famous but flawed fathers who did not make it to the top: Lord Randolph Churchill was crushed by Lord Salisbury, Joseph Chamberlain out-manoeuvred by Gladstone. Family vindication was a powerful motive for both the sons, who were to achieve the summit that eluded their fathers.

Book two deals with the struggle of the rivals after the national coalition won a decisive victory in 1935. Till then, despite the landslide of 1931, Baldwin's position had been insecure for a number of reasons, and he needed allies. "Well, you're finished now," Lord Beaverbrook genially greeted Churchill. "Baldwin has so good a majority that he will be able to do without you." Churchill had expected to be asked back into the cabinet and was flabbergasted. But Beaverbrook, who, for a Canadian adventurer, had remarkably sensitive political antennae, was right. Baldwin made no offer; nor did his now inevitable successor, Chamberlain, until war left him no choice.

What kept the greatest orator, most experienced politician and most inventive statesman in the wilderness for a decade? His phobia about the Indian Federation, which occupies much, perhaps too much, of book one, was not, pace many writers, myself included, the main cause. Chamberlain took no interest in India and did not exploit the matter in his battle with Churchill. He took no part in the outrageous efforts to smear Churchill over his fully justified though unprovable charges against Lord Derby of tampering with the evidence on India given by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce to a select committee.

Churchill was excluded because of a general mistrust of his erratic political past and a specific mistrust of his presence as a bitter anti-socialist in a national coalition under a prime minister who still flew his flag, however implausibly, under socialist colours. A virulent partisan had no chance of preferment in a period of consensual politics. Chamberlain, secure in the succession, had no need to intrigue against Churchill and had no personal rancour, unlike Baldwin. As early as 1925 he wrote: "I like him. Yet there is somehow a great gulf between him and me which I don't think I shall ever cross." Nor did Chamberlain take any part in the allegations - totally untrue, as the author shows - that Churchill contemplated forming a "King's Party" at the time of the abdication. His conduct was sufficiently self-destructive without the need for enemies to make that charge.

Churchill and Chamberlain were not so greatly at odds over rearmament as is often claimed, even after Chamberlain became prime minister. And Churchill supported Chamberlain's flights to negotiate with Hitler in September 1938. It was only after the final upshot, the Munich agreement, that he broke with Chamberlain and denounced the settlement with oratory that echoes to posterity.

Munich has been a subject of controversy, often bitter, ever since. The one certainty is that the result was not, as Chamberlain proclaimed, "peace with honour". Graham Stewart analyses the complex issues with clarity and charity. Chamberlain was deceived by Hitler; he was a victim of the perennial prime ministerial belief that if you talk to people "on the personal", as Cecil Rhodes put it, you can always come to a sensible agreement. Tony Blair's dealings with Sinn Fein are the latest example of this delusion. But did Chamberlain's peace, however dishonourable, give Britain a breathing space to be better prepared for war a year later?

This was certainly not Chamberlain's motive. But people may accidentally do the right thing for the wrong reason. There are too many imponderables in the strategic argument to give a conclusive answer. At the time, I was an Oxford student and a Conservative, though not very active. If I had had the vote I would have cast it against the official Tory Chamberlainite, Quintin Hogg, in the famous Oxford by-election in October. In retrospect I am not so confident. Hitler was not bluffing. The alternative was war, which was not a real option. Public opinion would never have sanctioned it, whatever the exact balance of military power, which the public never did or could know. Churchill referred to the House of Commons, which applauded Munich, as "this over-whipped crowd of poor 'Whites' ". But opinion was behind them. The House was the forum of a deluded nation.

The situation suddenly changed in March 1939, thanks to what Harold Macmillan regarded as the bugbear of prime ministers - "events, dear boy, events". The event was the occupation of Prague. Till then Hitler's purpose could be interpreted as confined to the unification of the German-speaking peoples. Not after Prague, which was too much even for Chamberlain's well- exercised credulity. But still he resisted pressure to give office to Churchill until the war compelled him.

When in 1940 events forced Chamberlain to resign, Churchill, after Halifax's refusal, became prime minister; but Chamberlain retained the leadership of the Tory party, which still deeply distrusted the new prime minister. They would have far preferred Halifax. Churchill made a point of treating Chamberlain with every courtesy and consulting him at every step. Churchill was always magnanimous. But he was also very conscious of his own vulnerability. A cabal between Chamberlain and Halifax with one or two supporters could easily have forced him out. The battle of Britain, his superb oratory and the resignation of Chamberlain, which gave him the leadership of the party, rendered his position impregnable.

The saga of these years is one of great drama and extraordinary turns of fortune. It was a period I lived through but knew little about. I am glad to have survived long enough to see it so admirably chronicled.

Lord Blake's pocket biography of Winston Churchill was published last year by Sutton Publishing