MR. CHAMBERLAIN AND THE CABINET
By OUR PARLIAMENTARY CORRESPONDENT
SINCE the outbreak of war Mr. Chamberlain has main- tained, and even strengthened, his hold on the House of Commons. It is an astonishing achievement. Last September there were many forecasts of his early departure from office. It seemed unlikely that the principal advocate of appeasement would long survive its collapse. More- over he had never displayed those dynamic qualities which the public is accustomed to look for in a War Premier. Now, after seven months, the prophets are confounded. The Prime Minister has, it is true, several bitter critics. But they almost all belong to the ranks of those who opposed him in the days of Munich, and even they are constrained by the circumstances of the moment to moderate their strictures. It is safe to say that nothing short of a very considerable disaster can deprive him of the allegiance of his great Parliamentary majority.
Admittedly this predominance is largely due to the absence of serious competitors. Lord Halifax is most frequently suggested as a possible successor. The objec- tions to a peer are not insurmountable. Such an arrange- ment, however, has only worked well in the past when the relations between the Prime Minister and leader of the House of Commons have been peculiarly close and in- timate, and it is impossible to be sure that Lord Halifax would find his Disraeli or his Balfour. Mr. Churchill is, of course, the brightest star in the Ministerial firmament. But, as in the last war, he has far more admirers than followers, and there is no sign that the bulk of the Con- servative Party is yet anxious to promote him to the first place. Although Sir John Simon and Sir Samuel Hoare are occasionally mentioned, they have singularly few backers. In short, the House of Commons fully intends to keep Mr. Chamberlain where he is. Except for the younger Pitt no British Prime Minister at the head of a war-time administration has enjoyed so complete an assur- ance of Parliamentary support.
This general approval emphatically does not extend to his choice of colleagues. The unfavourable comments on certain Ministers which have filled the Press in the last few days have been heard at Westminster for a long time past. Even before the war it was felt on all sides that the Govern- ment needed a drastic overhaul. John Morley once expressed the opinion that a certain proportion of medio- crity was to be desired, since it acted as ballast and steadied the Ministerial ship. This particular vessel, however, is weighed down with ballast. There is an unduly large number of colourless personalities whose disappearance from the Treasury Bench would scarcely be noticed by the House of Commons. In addition, there are two or three Ministers who owe their promotion to political longevity and to faithful party service, but who are patently unequal to the discharge of duties which have become infinitely more important since the war began.
The Government must be reconstructed, for the simple reason that, as things stand at present, it cannot be replaced. In the last war, when we still enjoyed the advantages of a two-party system, the official Opposition was an alternative Government. Today Labour has neither the numbers nor the capacity to take office by itself. It is at least doubtful whether its leaders are really anxious to encompass the defeat of the existing Ministry. For in that event they would be faced with the necessity of helping to form a coalition. They would be compelled to join forces not only with the Liberals but with a large number of Conservatives. This would present for them a very real difficulty. Their party would be seriously split, and they would almost cer- tainly be faced with a formidable revolt among their more " militant " supporters in the country. As time went on they would need to take responsibility for a great many measures which would be resented by Socialist enthusiasts and even possibly by faithful trade unionists. Moreover, such a Government could only be formed for one purpose— the more vigorous prosecution of the war. Apart from its avowed pacifists, the Labour Party includes a not inconsider- able element which still seems more concerned with domestic, social and political issues than with the achievement of victory. No one doubts the patriotism or the will to win of the accredited Labour leaders, but they have a deep- seated and traditional objection to anything which impairs the solidarity of their movement.
It has been suggested this week that a few selected Labour front-benchers may accept office in Mr. Chamberlain's reconstituted Ministry. For the reasons already given it would be surprising if that happened. Permission would have to be obtained from the annual Conference, and it would not easily be forthcoming. The new Labour Ministers would also be placed in a position of the greatest difficulty. Before long they would need to defend the actions of the Government against the criticisms of their own fellow- Socialists. Both sides would have a claim upon their allegiance. At any moment, too, they might find their authority terminated and themselves peremptorily recalled to the Opposition benches. There could be no stability in circumstances such as these.
The Liberals are moved by somewhat different considera- tions. Sir Archibald Sinclair can carry them with him in whatever cause he chooses to adopt. He does not need to await the verdict of a party conference, and there is scarcely any dissident or lukewarm minority to which he need have regard. He refused to join the Government in September when, as is generally understood, he was offered a post out- side the War Cabinet. Most people will agree that he could hardly have done otherwise. He might, however, reconsider his decision if he were invited to enter a small War Cabinet on the 1917 model. But this inclusion would represent something more than a mere broadening of the basis of the Ministry. Not only has the Liberal leader been in recent weeks by far the most outspoken critic of the Government. He has also made clear his convictions that this war cannot be won merely by conducting a siege. The emphasis in his recent speeches has been on the necessity of seizing the initiative, and last week he bitterly attacked the Government for its failure to give speedier and more adequate assistance to the Finns. If the two Oppositions cannot, or will not, come in, or if it is decided not to renew the invitation of last September, the Prime Minister has two alternatives open to him. He can include some of those Conservatives who have differed from him in the past eighteen months. On the other hand, he can content himself with another reshuffle. Apart from the Government Whips, almost everyone at Westminster hopes that he will not choose the latter course. Even Mr. Chamberlain, with all his prestige and authority, is scarcely strong enough to carry some of his present colleagues on his back. The question is whether he has the strength of mind to dispense with them.