Magazine article The Spectator

Dirty Tricks for Neville

Magazine article The Spectator

Dirty Tricks for Neville

Article excerpt

A CONTROVERSIAL leader at the helm, a determined minority of distinguished opponents on the backbenches, and Europe threatening to split the Tory party asunder. Sixty years ago this month, on 15 March 1939, Hitler's troops marched unopposed into Prague after a relentless campaign of intimidation against what was left of Czechoslovakia following the brutal amputation of the Sudetenland at Munich six months before. In doing so he poured fuel on a simmering civil war in the Tory party.

Chamberlain was on a fly-fishing break with a friend when he heard the news and returned immediately to London. The bloodless victory violated all Hitler's promises about his aims in Europe, made nonsense of the Munich settlement, and struck a death blow to the policy of appeasement. `Is this the end of an old adventure,' Chamberlain wondered, `or is it the beginning of a new?' By the end of the month he answered his question by signing the fateful pact with Poland that would bring Britain into war with Germany.

The events may have sparked the end of appeasement, but they intensified the bitter civil war between Chamberlain and his Conservative critics. His noticeable stiffening of attitude towards Hitler was accompanied by a renewed determination not to yield domestic political ground to the antiappeasers who now believed themselves vindicated. The most awkward was Churchill, who wanted, of course, to be shown to be both right and worthy of office. As much in the wilderness as ever, he hoped that Chamberlain's change of course heralded a rapprochement on international affairs that would bring him into the government. With backbench allies such as Anthony Eden and Duff Cooper, he made his first public appeal for a national government at the end of the month; it fell on determinedly deaf ears.

It was not simply a question of passive resistance on Chamberlain's part. He launched an active campaign of dirty tricks.

Chamberlain was tough, determined, and unscrupulous, as his connivance at attempts by his supporters to have Churchill unseated in his Epping constituency had already revealed. But he needed an expert in the truly seamy side of political life. He had no further to look than his fly-fishing friend.

Sir Joseph Ball (1885-1961) has long been recognised by Conservative party historians such as John Ramsden and Lord Blake as a figure of far greater significance than the paucity of references to him suggests. A `quintessential eminence grise' is how Blake describes him, and it has long been known that he acted as a secret intermediary for Chamberlain's dealings with Mussolini.

Ball, a barrister, had been recruited into MIS during the first world war. Becoming Conservative party director of publicity in 1927, he put his tradecraft to work by penetrating the Labour party with informants who relayed advance information on its policy and publications. He was a fierce loyalist who turned the Conservative research department into a virtual Chamberlainite private army and who assiduously pulled strings to ensure the Prime Minister a favourable press at critical moments. He also secretly bought a controlling share in the weekly magazine Truth, through which he propagated his master's views and blackened the names of his opponents by rumour and innuendo. After Prague, the magazine launched a determined campaign to sabotage Churchill's bid for office by mocking his qualifications as a potential Cabinet and war minister. This had Chamberlain's approval since, as Richard Cockett revealed a decade ago in Twilight of Truth: Chamberlain, Appeasement and the Manipulation of the Press (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989), Chamberlain was one of the few within the party who knew Truth's secret and he energetically employed it in this campaign.

Churchill had ruthlessly exploited his personal contacts in Whitehall and the secret intelligence service for inside ammunition in his campaign against appeasement. Stanley Baldwin had been remarkably tolerant of this, but Chamberlain took a far less benign view. …

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