On 23 June 1953 the 78-year-old Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed down one side. While the true extent of his illness was kept secret from the press, the given line that Churchill was suffering from “mental fatigue” inevitably left the public raising “the question of the Tory succession”. As Anthony Eden, the deputy prime minister and Churchill’s presumed successor, had also been seriously unwell since April, there was confusion surrounding who was now leading the Conservative Party, and consequently the country. The unofficial position of acting prime minister was assumed by Rab Butler, the Chancellor, and it fell to him to “effectively command the Tory troops”. This NS article – the title of which refers to the biblical mantle of prophetic authority that was passed from Elijah to Elisha – describes how this period of uncertainty threatened a “fairly popular government” and quickly reduced the Tories to appearing “as a collection of nonentities, fragmented and purposeless”.
After almost a year with everything going their way, the Tories are facing a crisis. For Sir Winston Churchill’s illness means more to the Government than the loss of its brightest star. Earlier, when Mr Eden fell sick, his departure was almost unnoticed – and that although he was the recognised Crown Prince of his Party – so general was the assumption that Sir Winston, at the age of 78, could both take charge of the Foreign Office, and stick to it, till the Foreign Secretary returned. This irrational confidence was the very essence of the myth of one-man rule, so dear to Sir Winston and so valuable to the Tories.
Its destruction by Sir Winston’s not unnatural collapse must tend to damage the prestige of Sir Winston himself and, in the longer run, of Mr Eden and of their Party. Nothing could have drawn attention more sharply to the weakness of the Tories as a team. With Sir Winston hors de combat for an indefinite period (nobody knows how serious his “mental fatigue” may prove to be), a fairly popular Government suddenly appears as a collection of nonentities, fragmented and purposeless. Nothing, too, could have raised more urgently the question of the Tory succession.
Here comes the second significant feature of the week’s events. Nobody will succeed to the Tory leadership without either a fierce internal struggle or Sir Winston’s personal and public blessing; and precedent suggests that this blessing has this week been withheld with a pointedness which may not be accidental. Mr Butler is de facto the senior member of the Cabinet still at work: de jure his position has been defined so as to give him the least possible authority. When, for instance, in January of this year the Prime Minister went for his Jamaican holiday, Mr Eden was specifically appointed to act as Prime Minister and to preside over the Cabinet. It is true that in September, 1952, Mr Butler “presided at Cabinet meetings” without any additional status; but that was for a few days only, during that part of Sir Winston’s Riviera holiday when Mr Eden was absent, in attendance at the Council of Europe.
The parallel is that of January, 1952, when Sir Winston and Mr Eden were both in Washington. Lord Salisbury was then in charge at the Foreign Office “during Mr Eden’s absence,” and Mr Crookshank presided at Cabinet meetings. Thus, Mr Butler’s official status is now defined in exactly the same terms as was Mr Crookshank’s 18 months ago. The realities of the present situation emphasise the degree of coolness which Sir Winston is now showing towards his Chancellor. For, on the earlier occasions, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister were separated only geographically from their desks and could have returned at once if necessary. This time, although important documents are still being shown to Sir Winston, a quick return is unlikely. Moreover, Mr Butler has become, during the course of this Government, a powerful political figure, whereas Mr Crookshank was never more than a puppet. To have named him as Acting Prime Minister would have been derisory; but it is denying the facts to withhold the title from Mr Butler.
Again, Lord Salisbury’s appointment as Acting Foreign Secretary is sensible enough departmentally, and according to the precedent of January, 1952. But it is highly objectionable to the Commons that the Foreign Secretary should, at this moment, be sheltered in the Lords from questions and criticism. Here, too, the Prime Minister has significantly avoided the appointment of Sir David Maxwell Fyfe. (Mr Macmillan was presumably not eligible, since he, too, is about to enter hospital.) Either of these would have been acceptable to the Commons; but either of them, by constituting a challenge – and perhaps a continuing challenge – to Mr Eden’s command of the Foreign Office might have weakened his position in the Commons and might so have played a part indirectly in strengthening Mr Butler.
So Sir Winston’s reaction to the crisis precipitated by his illness is to make what can be interpreted as a public gesture of withholding his mantle from Mr Butler and safeguarding Mr Eden’s inheritance. Whether Mr Eden proves, in the event, to be a runner in this particular contest, depends on his health. But even if he enters, it is no longer safe to assume that he automatically wins. Some of the bloom has been rubbed off his prestige both by his grave illness and by Sir Winston’s consequential handling of the Foreign Office; while, inside his own Party, he had already lost a lot of ground by his correct handling of the Sudan Agreement. So shaky, indeed, has his position become beside that of the tough, ambitious and still physically fit Mr Butler, that it may be doubted whether Sir Winston’s backing stems entirely from a desire to see Mr Eden at No.10. It may include a shrewd calculation that the closing period of his own rule will be less troubled by the intimate attendance of the warm-hearted, pliable Eden, the perpetual second-fiddle, than by his colder, younger, more ruthless rival.
The long antipathy between Sir Winston and Mr Butler lends support to this view, as does the Prime Minister’s preference, manifest throughout this Government, for acting alone or on the advice of an inner circle of deferential personal friends, rather than leaning on Cabinet decisions. Certainly, if Sir Winston desires to establish Mr Eden as his unquestioned successor, the nomination must be made a great deal more decisively than it has been hitherto. For it is Mr Butler who controls the Party machine, and whose influence among Tory back-benchers has been growing in proportion to the decline of Mr Eden’s. It is true that Mr Butler has his enemies. But the factions reputedly led by discontented industrialists like Mr Ralph Assheton, or by Cabinet rivals like Mr Lyttelton, amount to very little in terms of voting power, when set against Mr Butler’s Parliamentary army of middle-class Tories and the prestige of a Chancellor who is implementing Tory policy without electoral disaster.
During the Prime Minister’s absence it is Mr Butler who effectively commands the Tory troops. And when Sir Winston returns? The end of the myth that one man, a near octogenarian, can rule single-handed in a modern industrial democracy, has confronted the Tory party with a crisis which may lead to the end of other illusions. It is possible that, inside his Party, Sir Winston will never again exert quite his erstwhile decisive authority. This week’s events increase the power of the Party machine over the Leader. Mr Butler can afford to swallow any immediate sense of rebuff in the knowledge that events are moving his way.
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