The solution to Parliament’s immediate Brexit crisis may lie in recalling another crisis eight decades ago, and applying Mark Twain’s dictum that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

The parallel in question concerns the build-up to Neville Chamberlain’s resignation as Prime Minister in May 1940. With the papers speculating on Mrs May’s imminent downfall, it’s worth asking whether the two sagas might continue to rhyme.

On September 30, 1938, Chamberlain returned to London from meeting Hitler in Munich and declared he had assured “peace in our time.” His words, delivered on the steps of 10 Downing Street, were greeted enthusiastically, especially by the Conservative Party and the pro-Tory press.

Peter Kellner
Kellner is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on Brexit, populism, and electoral democracy.
More >

On October 2, 2016, in her first speech to the Conservative Party conference as Prime Minister, Mrs May said: “Brexit means Brexit.” Her words were greeted enthusiastically, especially by the Conservative Party and the pro-Tory press.

On May 7, 1940, Chamberlain opened the Norway debate in the House of Commons. British troops had failed in their attempt to save Norway from German occupation. The Prime Minister argued that, despite the disappointments, the campaign had had some success, for German troops had suffered much greater losses than allied forces. The problem was not that his strategy had failed, but that many MPs had had unrealistic expectations about what the allied forces could achieve. He would rejig the Cabinet and carry on the fight against Hitler.

Last Wednesday, Mrs May spoke to the nation from 10 Downing Street. She argued that, despite the disappointments over her Brexit negotiations with Brussels, the fault lay not with her but with the inability of MPs to make a clear choice about the way forward. She would adjust her tactics and carry on the fight for Brexit.

In the days after Chamberlain’s speech, Conservative MPs started to rise against him. Some with great military experience—such as Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes—blamed him for the debacle.

The former Cabinet minister, Leo Amery, ended his speech with a quote from Oliver Cromwell: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”

In the days following Mrs May’s broadcast, Conservative MPs queued up to demand her resignation. Her chief whip, Julian Smith, told fellow Conservative MPs that her speech was “appalling.” Eleven cabinet ministers told the Sunday Times that they wanted her to make way for someone else.

That’s the rhyme so far. Will it continue?

On May 10 1940, Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister and Winston Churchill replaced him. Obviously, the point here is not whether there is anyone with Churchill stature waiting in the wings to succeed Mrs May. There are, however, two aspects to the 1940 story that could provide a useful parallel.

The first is that Churchill was at the time unpopular with many Conservative MPs. His pre-war criticisms of Chamberlain’s policies towards Hitler had provoked charges of disloyalty. Serious attempts were made to oust him as the Conservative MP for Epping. And as First Lord of the Admiralty, he bores as much blame as Chamberlain—and arguably more, for the Norway debacle. At the time of his appointment as Prime Minister, he was widely seen as a dangerously divisive leader.

It is—how shall we put this?—not inconceivable that if Mrs May does resign, her successor could be someone currently regarded as divisive by least one section of the Conservative Party.

Second, and this is the really intriguing possibility suggested by the events of May 1940, Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister, but not as leader of the Conservative Party. He continued with his party post, though in a fairly passive way, until ill-health forced him to stand down four months later. Only then did Churchill add party leader to his title as Prime Minister.

Today, there is clearly a large appetite in her party for Mrs May to leave Downing Street, but little for an immediate, bruising party leadership contest. Hence the talk over the weekend of a “caretaker” leader, who would step down once Brexit has been sorted out. The difficulty is that if Mrs May resigns as Conservative leader, it might be hard to corral enough Tory MPs to prevent a contest.

Mrs May could spare the party that ordeal by remaining party leader for the next few months. Having won a confidence vote among her MPs last December, party rules dictate that she cannot be challenged again until next December.

By departing Downing Street but not Conservative Central Office, she would greatly enhance the chances of a caretaker Prime Minister being appointed who enjoyed the confidence of MPs across Parliament, even if the choice upset some Tories.

One name in the frame, according to both the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday, is David Lidington. He fits that description of having opponents inside his party but wide respect among MPs in other parties. His chances would certainly rise if the vacancy were purely for Prime Minister and not party leader.

In theory, of course, continuing-party-leader May could cause trouble for her Downing Street successor. But, given that she would be in post for just a few months, she could make it clear that any big decisions would be for the next, properly elected, post-Brexit, party leader. Her role would be to help stop her party disintegrating, not to chart its future.

To be clear: I’m not predicting that this is how events will unfold. It belongs to the “possible” and emphatically not “probable” box. But many improbable things have already happened. Who knows…?

This article was originally published by Prospect Magazine with the title “Theresa May could solve her Brexit crisis—by following in the footsteps of Neville Chamberlain.”