Winston Churchill at his seat in the Cabinet Room, No 10 Downing Street, London. Image: Cecil Beaton via Wikimedia Commons
Margaret Thatcher was brought down by conflicts in Cabinet over Europe. Tony Blair dominated, and circumvented, his Cabinet over Iraq. Theresa May’s inner Cabinet is structurally divided over Brexit. So despite the general tendency to assume that the Cabinet has become a pro forma body unable to manage complex business, it seems that it is still the place where vital decisions on the great issues of the day get fought out. It is unavoidably the highest decision-making body in the land. Joe Wright’s new film Darkest Hour makes this point with startling force, centred as it is around the conflict in late May 1940 between a bullish Winston Churchill, newly arrived in 10 Downing Street to handle a deteriorating military position, and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, concerned that the new facts of Britain’s isolation, its inability to defeat Germany by itself, and the high probability of an invasion, should be faced – meaning that some kind of compromise peace might have to be seriously considered.
This is a riveting clash, personal and political, to which the film does justice without stereotyping either man. We can forgive the one real lapse of taste when Churchill is seen travelling (one stop!) by Tube to encounter some unconvincing vox pop. Yet as this is a drama, not a sober documentary, some issues are unavoidably foregrounded at the expense of others. We see nothing, for example, of what the Labour members of the War Cabinet – Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood – were doing and thinking. In the new coalition government they were of extreme importance. It might be thought that they were form anti-appeasers. In fact the record shows that while they allowed Churchill to make the running, at the same time they did not initially dissent from Neville Chamberlain’s line that at some point ‘any reasonable [peace] terms’ might have to be discussed. Being wholly new to government, they were in effect playing a waiting game, rather like Jeremy Corbyn is doing now during the Brexit negotiations.
Read Christopher Hill's full review over at the Cambridge Core blog