Six Minutes in May brings the story of Winston Churchill to life

Nicholas Shakespeare manages to evoke tension in an old tale by understanding its human drama.

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Politics is distilled to its essence when the time comes for a tribe to replace its leader. This is hardly hot news, but everyone delving into this riveting and rollicking account of the Chamberlain-Lord Halifax-Churchill succession will find special pleasure today in inhaling the rich mix of ambition and weakness, bravery and fecklessness, jealousy and sheer hatred, because the contemporary echoes are loud and irresistible.

Nicholas Shakespeare achieves the remarkable feat of bringing tension to an old story by understanding its human drama. His account of the Norway Debate in May 1940 is a bravura performance, painting a vivid backdrop that explains the meetings that made Churchill prime minister two days later. You’re in the throng, watching a cabinet minister spit on the shoes of an abstaining backbencher, seeing Churchill’s face as he prepares to wind up the debate in support of Neville Chamberlain, while desperate to see him fall. You glimpse Halifax, foreign secretary, slipping through from the Lords to hear Churchill, then writing to his mistress about his feelings as favourite to succeed, with the press, the public, the Palace and a good chunk of Labour on his side.

The six minutes of the title have nothing to do with the much-debated silence at the turning point of Churchill’s subsequent meeting with Halifax and Chamberlain. (Was it only Churchill’s clever pause and the failure of Halifax to seize the moment that settled the premiership?) Instead they refer to the length of the parliamentary division, measured by the egg-timer on the clerks’ table, that split the Tories and pushed Chamberlain, so lately a hero, to the edge of the cliff. This was the debate after which Jack Profumo, who would have his own parliamentary crisis a generation later, cast his first vote in the Commons (against the government) and was told by his chief whip that he was “an utterly contemptible little shit” who’d repent every day of his life. Violet Bonham Carter described to her diary hearing the chant of “Go! Go! Go!” from prim Conservatives such as Harold Macmillan, in high white collar and pince-nez, dancing “like a bunch of inspired baboons”.

Shakespeare’s masterful handling of diaries and contemporary accounts brings the story to life, not least because of their factual contradictions. He has a novelist’s feel for self-pity, jealousy and ambition. The story of Churchill’s accession to power on the day that Hitler’s armies entered the Low Countries and set course for France has never been infused with so much humanity.

At the heart of the story is the old mystery: how could it have all come to the battered Churchill – reviled by the Chamberlainite establishment, mocked for trying to prop up Edward VIII in the abdication crisis and crippled by a reputation for unreliability? Shakespeare’s piercing account of the disastrous Norway campaign that opens the book lays bare his failings (he was trying to fight the Dardanelles all over again) and makes all the more engrossing the political chaos from which he finally emerged, with a cherubic smile and a glass in his hand.

The speed of events is bewildering for an age when men in striped trousers never seemed to hurry, always had time for dinner, and forgot about politics at the weekend. Halifax strolls through the Buckingham Palace gardens (he had a special key from the king) on the morning he might have become prime minister, and takes tea with Churchill in the Downing Street garden as Chamberlain tries in vain to get Clement Attlee’s Labour Party to throw him a lifeline.

Churchill, having being asked to form a government, says to his bodyguard on the drive back to No 10: “You know why I have been to Buckingham Palace, Thompson?”

He was propelled by “the hinge of fate”. There was no leadership vote, just an acceptance by the men at the top, and then reluctantly by the king, that everything must change. But very soon it seemed right.

Shakespeare reveals a poignant diary entry from Charles Peake, friend to Halifax, with the foreign secretary’s own account of how it ended. To summarise: Chamberlain said he wanted Halifax. The Chief Whip said he was wonderful in his way, but now only Winston would do. Halifax said that he had come to believe no other choice was possible. Churchill said he had spoken better than he had ever heard him, had “put the thing in a nutshell” and there was nothing anyone could add.

This is the raw politics of leadership, which doesn’t change much. 

Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister
Nicholas Shakespeare
Harvill Secker, 490pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder