Confidence is Key: Theresa May Should Have Known That

The Fool from the Dance of Death, Hieronymus Hess, c1845

The Fool from the Dance of Death, Hieronymus Hess, c1845

Elliot Leavy

On 7 May 1940, the House of Commons began a debate about the disastrous campaign against the Germans in Norway. A subsequent confidence vote led to the then prime minister, Neville Chamberlain,  trying to form a national coalition government by joining his party, the Conservatives, with Labour and the Liberals. Clement Attlee, the Labour leader, refused to join any such government led by Chamberlain. This was in reaction to Chamberlain’s pre-war policy of appeasing Nazi Germany. Chamberlain had no option but to resign.

The leadership competition was drawn up. It was to be either: Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, or Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. According to Roy Jenkins, not only did Halifax have the support of the King, the Holy Fox also wanted Mussolini to mediate with Hitler, restore German colonies, grant the führer overlordship of Europe and let Britain live quietly beyond the English Channel, as Spain did behind the Pyrenees. 

The exact details of the discussions between Chamberlain, Churchill and Halifax about who would become prime minister remain unclear. The outcome, however, was. Halifax, who was Chamberlain’s preferred choice and the 'Establishment' candidate, turned down the offer to become prime minister, believing he could restrain Churchill more effectively by serving under him rather than as his leader. If it all went wrong, he could step in from a position of strength.

78 years later, Theresa May would have been wise to remember that in times of national crisis, confidence votes are always within the realm of possibility. By alienating so many of her own MPs and those of the DUP, she has lost not only the control of her own fate, but that too of her party, and of her country. Perhaps ironically (or predictably), her overconfidence in her position has now translated into a no-confidence vote on her position. As the saying goes, dancing with death is all well and good – that is until the music stops.

I am not one for alternative history, but if the Conservative party had stuck with the ‘Establishment' candidate Halifax back in 1940, today’s Europe could have been a lot different. Depending on which dramatic decisions are made tonight as Brexit reaches fever pitch, tomorrow’s Europe could be a lot different too.