FEW DAYS ago a cynical joke went swiftly through the smoke rooms of the House of Commons. it took the form of a bulletin which, so said the wits, would be issued by the B. B. C. that night:
"Mr. Baldwin’s political life is drawing swiftly to its close.
(Signed) Neville Chamberlain,
Sir John Simon,
Sir Thomas Inskip.”
I make no comment on the taste of the lampwn. 1 merely quote it as an evidence of one of the strangest battles for power that has ever been fought at Westminster, and as an indication of the state of mind among some of those looking on.
Some weeks ago in Maclean's I endeavored to portray the forces both of events and personalities combining against Mr. Baldwin. It seemed to me then that he was facing a crisis of such complexity that even he. the professional survivor of crises, could not surmount this one.
To understand the exact intensity of recent events it is necessary to tabulate the rake’s progress—or, as some people would have it, the saint’s progress—by which Mr. Baldwin’s grip on Parliament and on his own party had steadily weakened.
Loss of Prestige
rT'HE FIRST step, of course, was the IIoare-Laval episode. When a Prime Minister agrees to a settlement put forward by his Foreign Secretary and then goes back on the agreement and throws the Foreign Secretary to the wolves, he becomes highly vulnerable to attack. There is much that can be said for his actions at that time, but nevertheless they were a shock to his followers and to the country.
Two months later a section of his own party defied him and defeated the Government in the House on a minor issue. The loyalists in the party called for punishment or at least a reprimand to the delinquents, but nothing happened beyond a mild letter from Mr. Baldwin urging everyone to play the game.
A fewr weeks later Mr. Runciman introduced a far-seeing but contentious Coal Mining Bill compelling the mine owners to amalgamate. Again there was a rebellion in the Conservative ranks. Mr. Baldwin bowed to the storm and said the Bill would
be altered. At this the Socialists sprang to
their feet and demanded an adjournment of the House. Mr. Baldwin fought them
for three hours and then gave in. The Socialists secured the adjournment and the Tory rebels had secured what they wanted, a virtual abandonment of the Bill.
The steps were getting more slippery all the time and it was not long before he reached the next lower level. That was the abandonment of Sanctions against Italy. In spite of the fact that his party w'as almost solidly behind him in this case, he allowed Mr. Lloyd George and the Socialists to knock him all round the ring without making any adequate or spirited reply.
Mr. Duff Cooper, husband of the lovely Lady Diana Manners, supplied the next drop. Mr. Baldwin, in a public speech, had stated that what he most earnestly desired was a close understanding between Britain. France and Germany. Mr. Dulf Cooper, the Secretary of State for War, went to Paris and said that what we wanted was an Anglo-French alliance.
At that time Mr. Baldwin was going down the steps at such speed that it was only a matter of hours before he
reached the next one.
Lord Londonderry, that, combination of British statesman and Irish playboy, issued a statement that Mr.
Baldwin was wrong when he said that he had never been advised as ti> the extraordinary development of German rearma-
ment. The fact was, said I/>rd Londonderry, that he himself, as Air Minister, had acquainted Mr. Baldwin with the exact situation.
At that the storm burst.
HTHE newspapers, led by milords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, proclaimed the end. Even The Times plunged a knife into the Premier’s ribs. Cabinet Ministers huddled in comers rearranging the future. Neville Chamberlain carried his head a little higher because at last he was going to make that short move—but oh. how vast a distance in reality—from No. 11 Downing Street, tí) No. 10.
Mr. Baldwin carried on, facing the surging tide of attack from his enemies and conscious of the receding tide of loyalty from his friends. What was the man made of to stand such a strain? Had he no nerves? No sensibility? Was his heart that of a man or a bull?
Suddenly he was not in his place. He had gone to Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country house, for a short rest.
Then did the hounds give tongue. These many years they had chased him from cove to cove while the sweet discord of their voices was heard across the hills. And now the fox was trapped !
With that amazing ineptitude which characterizes the British Labor Party, their leaders said across the floor of the House that he had run away, that he was shirking. Ix>rd Rothermere announced in the Daily Mail that Mr. Baldwin was consulting with his colleagues about his immediate resignation. Lord Beaverbrook was perfectly consistent. He always be* lieved that he would eventually knock out Baldwin and here the fellow was—on the floor.
News came from Chequers. A very short statement. Mr. Baldwin had not been sleeping well for
some time, and on the
doctor’s advice was taking a short rest. He would, however, return to the House on Thursday to answer the question based on Lord Londonderry’s charges.
That statement of his illness came as a shock. The thought of sturdy, old Squire Baldwin lying awake at night was not a pleasant one. People began to remember that he had hardly ever been ill before.
Sir John Simon was brilliantly deputizing for him in the H«use, but we were all conscious of the Premier’s absence. Murmurings took the place of curses.
The newspapers, however, refused to let up. They ran articles on insomnia and
even suggested that Mr. Baldwin might never appear in the House again. An inspired statement in one newspaper declared that Mr. Chamberlain was already planning a Cabinet overhaul which would strengthen the whole
facade, in preparation for an election. It was probably true.
Sí) Thursday came. We assembled at 2.45 p.m., but the Premier was not in his place. Question time, which lasts for an hour, went on, while the glittering Simon fenced and lunged with superb artistry. Where was Baldwin? Neville Chamberlain sat motionless and took no part in what was going on. With an admirable sense of fitness, he refused to take the limelight while everyone was proclaiming him the next king. The question to Mr. Baldwin was No. 39. We were already at No. 33.
'"PHEN quietly from behind the Speaker’s chair came Stanley Baldwin and walked with his old familiar country walk to his place between Simon and Chamberlain. There was a shout from fifty voices, then a cheer that grew and grew until it was an ovation such as Westminster had not heard for many years. It would not stop. Instead, it went on until the place was like Bedlam. I looked across the House and the Socialists were cheering, too—not mockingly but sincerely. The lost leader sat in his place and made no movement. Simon said something to him, and his face lit up for a moment in a shy, pleased smile. At last the cheering ended. A moment later the Speaker called on Mr. Tom Johnston, the Socialist, to put question No. 39, which was to the Prime Minister. With a swift realization of the atmosphere of the House, Johnston said :
“No. 39, Sir, to the Prime Minister who, for personal reasons, we are all delighted to see in his place.”
Wise Mr. Johnston. Even the Socialist leaders sometimes do the right, thing.
Mr. Baldwin rose to more cheering. Then a hush came over the whole assembly. What a chance for an actor! Why not a word of regret that he had been absent because of the strain which had been long and heavy. Why not a play for pity or a sneer at his enemies?
Not Stanley Baldwin. In an utterly matter-of-fact voice he explained that there was no discrepancy or misunderstanding between Lord Londonderry and himself. Undoubtedly Lord Londonderry had supplied him with correct information, but since his figures could not be proved at the time, the Government could not do more than accept them as an estimate which might or might not turn out to be accurate.
He sat down. The Socialists had planned to shoot a dozen supplementary questions to him, but not one rose to his feet. They were beaten by their own tactics. Yet another Baldwin crisis had evaporated into thin air.
DUT THE newspapers were not finished.
My old journal, the Daily Express, said that the cheering was organized by fifteen Tories under Sir Waldron Smithers. To give Beaverbrook credit, he had nothing to do with this bit of silliness. The good old Daily Mail ignored the cheering altogether and did not mention it.
That night Baldwin made a public speech. He said that when he resigned it would be in his own time, and that he would nominate his successor with a full recognition of the qualities required for the post of British Prime Minister. It was the speech of a man in an absolutely impreg-
nable position , and he knew it. On Sunday the Premier’s Socialist son, Oliver, who has not spoken to his father for years, wrote an article in the
Continued on page 28
Continued from page 16 -
Sunday Dispatch saying that his father was worth the rest of the Tory Party put together.
Monday, however, held the big surprise. The Daily Mail, which had led the resignation rumors and ignored the cheering, suddenly appeared with a flamboyant double-column story that Mr. Baldwin had no intention of resigning: that he, quite rightly, was going to be master in his house; that he was going to admonish those members of his Cabinet who had faltered; that Chamberlain would not be his successor—and generally made a voile face that must have astonished even Lord Rothermere’s most consistent admirers.
Thus did Stanley Baldwin by a touch of insomnia score the greatest personal triumph of his career. No wonder that during the next two days he went smilingly to Henley and to Lord’s Cricket Ground,
and smoked his pipe with the mental contentment of a farmer who has seen his thistles blossom unexpectedly into roses.
A strange, emotional, illogical people, these English. More than anything else they value a man for the good will that is in his heart, for his tolerance and fairness, for his courage and patience. The man they most esteem is he who expresses in himself the decent averageness of the English people.
Stanley Baldwin will have to resign within a few months. Events are not as considerate as human hearts. But it will be events and not his enemies that will force him to lay down the sceptre of power.
In the meantime the hounds are quiet. They are licking their bruises and their cuts. Their tails hang low, and their jaws droop with weariness and chagrin.
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