Churchill leaving Downing St  with Sir Kingsley Wood and Anthony Eden, 10 May 1940.

Churchill becomes Prime Minister

10 May 1940

Friday 10 May 1940 was one of the most dramatic days in British history. The government was in disarray as Winston Churchill became PM and, on the continent, Germany ended the Phoney War by invading the Low Countries.

Photo: Churchill leaving Downing St with Sir Kingsley Wood and Anthony Eden, 10 May 1940. (Getty Images)

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Neville Chamberlain resigns

On 7 May 1940, the House of Commons began a debate about the disastrous British campaign against the Germans in Norway. This turned into a vote of confidence in Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. Chamberlain won the vote but it was clear he had lost the confidence of his colleagues in the Conservative Party.

Chamberlain then tried 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.

There were now two Tory candidates for prime minister: Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, and Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. The exact details of the discussions between Chamberlain, Churchill and Halifax about who would become prime minister remain unclear.

The outcome, however, was clear. Halifax, who was Chamberlain’s preferred choice and the 'Establishment' candidate, turned down the offer to become prime minister. Halifax probably believed 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.

Churchill's years 'in the wilderness'

The field was now clear for Churchill, but he was by no means the obvious choice. He had had a highly successful political career in the early 20th Century but spent the 1930s 'in the wilderness', as he described it.

He was regarded by many politicians as unreliable and impetuous for, amongst other things: his stubborn opposition to Indian self-government; his swtiching between parties; his involvement in the 1936 Abdication crisis; and, above all, his unrelenting opposition to the appeasement of Nazi Germany.

Despite this, the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939 proved Churchill right. He was made prime minister on the same day that Germany invaded Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg ending the 'Phoney War'.

The reaction to Churchill's appointment

Although Churchill's appointment as prime minister was not initially welcomed by many of his political colleagues, he did enjoy widespread public support. He was greeted by cheering crowds outside Downing Street and his appointment was celebrated by David Low in his ‘All behind you, Winston’ cartoon, published in the Evening Standard newspaper on 14 May 1940.

Once he had taken office, Churchill wrote that he felt he was ‘walking with destiny'. Three days later he told the House of Commons that he had ‘nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’, and set the mood of the nation by declaring the British aim was, ‘Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival'.