Monday, December 5, 2016

Rubicund, serene, puffing

A century ago today saw the resignation, amid high political drama, of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. He had been the UK’s leader for more than eight years (having taken over from Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman who resigned because of ill-health), first as head of a Liberal government with a very slim majority, and then as head of war coalition government. However, he was forced to step down, and his rival Liberal David Lloyd George took over as Prime Minister to lead a coalition with a cabinet dominated by Conservatives. Wikipedia’s biography of Asquith gives a day-by-day account of what happened prior to, and on the day of, his resignation.

But, for a more personal view of events that day, 100 years ago, it is worth revisiting the diaries of Lady Cynthia Asquith, wife of Asquith’s second son Herbert - see Heartbreaking day for more about Lady Cynthia and her diaries. On that ‘historic’ night, she was dining at 10 Downing Street, and sat next to the Prime Minister, who was ‘rubicund, serene, puffing a guinea cigar’ and talking of going to Honolulu, while his wife, Margot, looked ‘ghastly ill - distraught’. The diary extract below comes from a 1987 Century Hutchinson reprint of The Diaries of Lady Cynthia Asquith 1915-1918 (originally published by Hutchinson in 1968).

5 December 1916
‘Lunched Bluetooth - he was very sad about Bron and perturbed about political situation. He seemed still to hope that the P.M.’s resignation might be averted. He said, rather reproachfully, that Montagu had secured his position with both parties. He twitted me again with my (according to him) reputed incapacity for loose talk.

I was dining early with Oc for his last night, but he telephoned to say dinner was postponed until 8.45 as the P.M. was in after all and the theatre was abandoned. It was great luck for me to dine at Downing Street on so historic a night. The atmosphere was most electric. The P.M. had sent in his resignation at 7.30 - a fact I was unaware of when I arrived and only gradually twigged. Oc, the Crewes, Eddie, Cis, and Elizabeth and Margot were dining.

I sat next to the P.M. - he was too darling - rubicund, serene, puffing a guinea cigar (a gift from Maud Cunard), and talking of going to Honolulu. His conversation was as irrelevant to his life as ever. Our subjects were my mandrill riddle (which Beb had told to a startled party the other day), and this wonderful brand of cigars. I asked for one to give Beb for Christmas and he gave it to me. Cis afterwards offered me ten shillings for it. I had a great accès of tenderness for the P.M. He was so serene and dignified. Poor Margot on the other hand looked ghastly ill - distraught (no doubt she was, as she always claims, ‘rumbling’) - and was imprecating in hoarse whispers, blackguarding Lloyd George and Northcliffe.

When we first came out Elizabeth, Lady Crewe and I had an à trois - Margot joined us. When the men came out she, Mr Asquith and the Crewes played bridge. Violet came in, bringing with her Mr Norton and Sir Ian Hamilton - the latter to say goodbye to Oc. Of course, the whole evening was spent in conjecture and discussion - most interesting. I tried to absorb as much as I could, but I am not quick about politics. I gathered that, before dinner, Mr Asquith had said he thought there was quite a chance of Lloyd George failing to form a Government at all. The Tories - in urging him to resign - had predicted such a failure. In any case, most people seemed to think that any Government he could succeed in forming would only be very short-lived. Of course Lloyd George would greatly prefer Bonar to be Prime Minister, in order himself to avoid incurring the odium of responsibility. The King had sent for Bonar but, of course, it would be very difficult for him to accept the office on the terms which had made Asquith resign it. The King is alleged to be very terribly distressed and to have said, ‘I shall resign if Asquith does’. The prospective attitude of the Liberal ministers was discussed. Everyone was convinced that not one of them would take office under Lloyd George, with the possible exception of Montagu. Bluetooth had assured me that the latter would, but nearly all the Asquith family repudiated the idea. George had been a very wily, foxy cad, and the Government whips must have been very bad, as apparently the P.M. was very much taken by surprise.

It had been a well-managed plot. According to Margot and others, Northcliffe has been to Lloyd George’s house every day since the beginning of the war, the imputation being that George feeds him with Cabinet information, telling him the next item of the Government programme, so that he is able to start a Press agitation, and thus gain the reputation of pushing the Government into their independently determined course of action. It was said that the F.O. was really Lloyd George’s ambition, and during the last weeks he has been going to the Berlitz School and reading histories of the Balkans. I believe the French like him, but he is loathed in Russia and Italy. He has had to cart Winston - whose exclusion was, I believe, one of Bonar’s conditions. Certainly one cannot imagine a crazier executive titan George, Carson, and Bonar, Of course, it would virtually be only George.

Was it my last dinner at Downing Street? I can’t help feeling very sanguine and thinking the P.M. will be back with a firmer seat in the saddle in a fortnight. I only hope to God he is - disinterestedly because I really think him the only eligible man. Incidentally, what could happen to all our finances I daren’t think! Certainly it is a most painfully interesting situation - deeply to be deplored at this juncture I think - and it’s rather disgusting that such seething intrigue should survive war atmosphere.

Oc saw me off in the tube. Very sad to say goodbye and he had a tear in his eye. Lost my head and passed through Charing Cross three times owing to political excitement. Got home very late. Talked to Papa. The P.M. said The Volunteer was incomparably the best war poem.’

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