The Halifax-Butler Coup of June 18, 1940 remains one of the most controversial events of the Second World War. Reactions to the Armistice that ended the war range from the incredulous "how could they do it?" to the disbelieving "surely he couldn't have done it without something else going on". The latter, of course, has been the starting point of a wide range of conspiracy theories that differ only in their wild fantasizing and their equally wild ignorance of British constitutional politics. In reality, those who understand how the British Government in general and the Conservative Party in particular work, realize just what a narrow-run thing the coup was. A delay in the German response, an earlier warning message to Churchill, either would have been adequate to forestall the coup. This was the foundation for General Sir John Hackett's famous alternate history "Britain Fights On", which hypothesized that the Germans did not respond to Halifax's message, the coup failed and Churchill remained Prime Minister. However attractive such fictional universes might be, we have to deal with the one that exists today and examine just what made the Halifax-Butler Coup work.
Although British post-war propaganda maintains that Britain went to war in August 1939 united in determination to defeat Nazi Germany, this is far from being true. In fact, both main political parties were split right down the middle on the issue. The Conservatives were split with one wing (Conservative-Hawk) favoring a confrontational policy towards Germany, asserting that only by opposing German expansion could the threat to Europe be minimzed while the other wing (Conservative-Dove) preferred an appeasment policy, suggesting that if German demands were met, the country would cease to be a threat to Europe and instead become a bulwark against communism. The Labour Party was also split with one faction (Labour-Right) believing that fascism should be opposed regardless of other considerations while the other (Labour-Left) believed that the Soviet Union should be supported, even though it was then allied with Nazi Germany. Finally, there was the Liberal Party whose strength was augmented by a number of MPs who belonged to none of the four mainstream factions listed above and turned to the Liberal party as a 'for want of a better' home.
Party numbers meant that these five groups were pretty much equivalent in size and voting power. When Britain went to war in September 1939, it did so under what amounted to a Conservative-Hawk/Labour-Right coalition (although it was never expressed that way), a policy opposed by Labour-Left with the Conservative-Doves and Liberals sitting on the sidelines. As the situation deteriorated, those latter groups came off the sidelines and began to oppose the Government's handling of the war. This reached a climax on May 10, when there had been a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. This saw the Conservative-Hawk/Labour-Right alliance facing a Conservative-Dove/Labour-Left front with the Liberals still sitting on one side. Although Chamberlain won that vote, the results were so ambiguous that Chamberlain felt his position had become untenable if it was based only on the support of his own party. In effect, he was relying on the votes of around half the opposition party to offset the virtual mutiny of the other half of his own party. He tried to save his position by forming a coalition government; but the leader of the Labour Party Clement Attlee made it clear his party would not work with a coalition government under Chamberlain, let alone assist in forming one.
Chamberlain made the only reasonable decision under these circumstances; he had resigned as Conservative party leader, and thus automatically lost his position as Prime Minister. The Conservatives still commanded a majority in the house so the new party leader would automatically become the next Prime Minister. The two factions in the Conservative Party each had a candidate for leader; the Conservative-Hawk group supported Winston Churchill while the Conservative-Dove Group supported Lord Halifax. Each had a cadre of supporters and the balance between them was even. Chamberlain smiled upon Churchill as his successor, but Halifax's main ally was King George VI. The King had expressed his approval of Halifax to anybody who would listen and the committee who ran the Conservative Party had offered the leadership to him. This is a critical point to remember; there is a popular belief that the Conservative Party elected its leader, they do now, they did not do so then. In the 1940s, the Conservative Party leader leader was appointed by a committee of elder statesmen who consulted with various groups and picked the candidate they considered best qualified for the job. An analogy can be drawn with the board of directors of a large company picking a new Chief Executive. There are no records of their deliberations but it is believed that the committee was divided down the middle and that the deciding factor was the King's support for Lord Halifax.
Lord Halifax, though, refused the position stating that he lacked the military and technical experience to lead a nation at war. It appears that the truth was that he had already decided he had to make peace with Germany and this meant Churchill and the war needed to be discredited before a peace initiative would stand a chance. This worked out the way Lord Halifax had foreseen. Churchill's problems came thick and fast and, six weeks later, the military situation was infinitely worse. The British Army's escape from capture at Dunkirk was hailed as a salvation but in reality it was, in military terms, a shocking setback. The continental ally whom Britain had relied on to face the German army was on the verge of defeat and Hitler was master of Europe from the Arctic Circle to the Bay of Biscay. By declining the position of Prime Minister, Halifax had isolated himself from the disaster but maintained his position as next inline and gain advantage from the delay. He had been kept on in his position as Foreign Secretary with his old friend RAB Butler as deputy and was now perfectly placed to step forth and earn himself a place in history.
The military disasters of June 1940 had shifted the British position slightly. The Conservative-Hawks had lost a little support to the Doves; the Labour-Right had lost a little to the Liberals. To Halifax's experienced political eye (aided by his friends and contacts in the media and elsewhere), there was a very thin majority in support of ending the war. On 17 June 1940, the day France fell, Halifax sent RAB Butler to meet with the Swedish Ambassador, Bjorn Prytz, whom he knew would be walking across St James's Park as he did every day. Butler asked Prytz back to the Foreign Office. Butler then told Prytz that, while Britain was officially for fighting on, no opportunity should be missed of compromise if reasonable conditions could be agreed, and no diehards would be allowed to stand in the way'. During their talk, Butler was called in to Halifax who told him to tell the Swede that ‘common sense and not bravado would dictate the British government’s policy'. This meeting resulted in a telegram which Prytz sent that evening to neutral Sweden's foreign minister, in which he said that he had been asked to transmit the contents of this meeting to the Swedish Foreign Ministry for onward transmission to Germany. Less than an hour later, the Swedes passed the message on to the German Government. By midnight, a reply, offering “reasonable terms” to be defined by noon the next day was received by Sweden and transmitted to Lord Halifax. The stage was set, the job now was to get the terms that arrived accepted.
To do this, Halifax set up a Cabinet meeting to address a number of routine administrative matters. These included the amount of wool to be included in National Cloth, modifications to the blackout regulations and fodder allowances for agricultural horses. It was incredibly boring, incredibly routine and, as usual, many Cabinet members had more important things to do than attend. Churchill had taken one horrified look at the Administrivia and decided to go to Windsor so he could prepare a speech, a task that would keep him away until the meetings end. However, Halifax had made certain that all his supporters were present. It was then simply a matter of stringing out the meeting until the German proposal came in.
At 2pm it had arrived. Butler had entered the Cabinet Office with the German terms. The German terms included an armistice and ceasefire, an agreement for peaceful co-existence and non-belligerency, the Royal Navy to restrict its operations to those within British waters, the Army to be returned to a peacetime establishment and the RAF restricted to fighters and tactical bombers only and to operate only within U.K. territorial boundaries. They were reasonable indeed and, in his capacity as Foreign Minister, he had proposed that the German terms be accepted. There was some debate in the Cabinet with the Conservative-Hawk faction belatedly realizing they had been outmanoeuvered, but Halifax had stacked the meeting to the point where the issue was no longer in doubt. The German terms were accepted by the Cabinet. Now, it was necessary to make sure the Cabinet decision was enforced.
While the meeting had been going on, RAB Butler had requested – and been granted – a meeting of the committee that ran the Conservative Party. Halifax's supporters on that committee had already been primed and were expecting the request. They called the Committee to order. Halifax, with the Cabinet decision to accept the German terms in his pocket, had presented himself to the committee as the man who had managed to get an honorable end to a war that was on the verge of being lost. One of his allies had moved a vote of no confidence in Churchill, it had been passed and that was it. Churchill was no longer Conservative Party Chairman and thus no longer Prime Minister. It was as simple as that, there was no election, no debate, no party-wide meeting. None of that was necessary, the committee simply fired Churchill as Party Leader and appointed Lord Halifax in his place. The whole meeting had taken barely thirty minutes.
This time Halifax accepted the position, explaining that he was not a wartime leader but that was no longer the requirement. What was needed now was a man who could make the peace work. The next stop was the Palace. The King had already been alerted to the change in leadership and welcomed him warmly. After all, Lord Halifax had always been his preferred choice for Prime Minister. The brief ceremony called "kissing hands" that marked the King's acceptance of the new Prime Minister was quickly over and it was done. He'd brought peace back to Great Britain. At 12 noon on June 18, Britain had been at war with Germany under the leadership of Prime Minister Churchill, at 4pm it was a country at peace with Germany under the leadership of Prime Minister Lord Halifax. Nobody outside the cabinet and the commitee that ran the Conservative Party had been consulted and it was all quite legal.
Halifax's first official act as new Prime Minister had been to issue instructions to put Churchill into "protective custody." It would have gone off smoothly as well if it hadn't been for Cabinet Secretary Alexander Cadogan. He'd got a warning out in time. Churchill had escaped, first to Portsmouth then out on a small aircraft to Ireland. From there, he’d flown on a Pan American clipper to the United States and had then been taken to Canada, the first of a long line of escapees to follow that route. With his departure, the last organized opposition to Halifax started to collapse.
The evening papers announcing the change hit the news-stands at 5pm. Within an hour he'd made his first broadcast as Prime Minister. It was a very finely judged performance, He didn't exactly claim a victory, but he'd pursued the line that the situation was catastrophic and that the peace terms represented a far better deal than expected. And wasn't peace better than being invaded? Next morning, the other papers had more or less followed suit, some with more reserve than others. The Daily Herald and the Daily Worker had been the most supportive, their connections with the Labour-Left saw to that. The Telegraph, normally a supporter of the Conservative-Hawks had been harder to convince but Halifax handled that situation well. He called the editor in to an exclusive meeting, gave him the official line on the record but off the record had told him "the truth". That the war had shown British equipment was hopelessly obsolete and in desperately short supply. Britain had needed time to rearm, to bring new, better aircraft, better tanks, better ships into service. The matter wasn't over, but if Britain was to fight, British soldiers needed the proper tools. That meant he had to buy time. He criticized Churchill, not for fighting Germany but for doing so too soon, when Britain was unready for the challenge. The Editor had gone away, not quite convinced but not bitterly opposed either.
That left two potential threats to Lord Halifax's position. One was the possibility of a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons. This was the only way of legally removing him from power. If a no-confidence vote in the Government was called and Lord Halifax lost, he would have to resign and there would be a general election. His calculation was that, given the splits in both main parties, the Conservative Party would gain enough votes to win that election with Halifax as the leader who was "the man who brought peace". However, he didn't believe it would come to that, no confidence votes were rare things in British politics, a double edged sword that destroyed those who proposed them. Britain already had one in 1940, there would be great reluctance to have a second. Anybody who was thinking of proposing one would look at the balance of power in the House of Commons and realize the chances of success would be slight. They'd back off. That assessment proved to be correct, despite some talk from the Conservative-Hawk faction, no vote of no confidence was ever proposed.
The other danger was of a military counter-coup but this Halifax quite rightly dismissed. The British Army was a non-political force, it would require a blatantly illegal seizure of power to push it into a coup. Halifax may have gained power by a rigged cabinet meeting and the decision of a committee that operated in secret with no form of transparency or accountability but he had operated entirely within the law and within the established precedents of the House of Commons. He had never been elected to power (and never would be), he had never had his prime ministerial appointment voted on or approved but he didn't need either. The moment he was appointed leader of the Conservative Party, as that party held teh largest number of seats in the House of Commons, he was legally the Prime Minister. The committee who fired Churchill and appointed Lord Halifax were, under the rules that applied then, entirely entitled to do both. Lord Halifax's position was legally unassailable and that obviated any possibility of his removal by the Army.