Churchill nodded and leaned back in his chair. He looked at Halifax, who met his gaze with a cold, probing stare. Churchill knew Halifax held nearly all the cards, that most of the Conservative Party wanted him as the next Prime Minister. He had been Viceroy of India, a senior minister for years, a cool, steady, Olympian aristocrat, both trusted and respected. And most Tories had never forgiven Churchill his Liberal past, nor his opposition to his own party over Germany. They viewed him as an adventurer, unreliable, lacking in judgment. Chamberlain wanted Halifax, as did Margesson, together with most of the Cabinet. And so, Churchill knew, did Halifax's friend, the King. But Halifax had no fire in his belly, none. Churchill loathed Hitler but Halifax treated the Nazi leader with a sort of patrician contempt; he had once said the only people the Fu?hrer made life difficult for in Germany were a few trade unionists and Jews.
Churchill, though, had had the wind in his sails with the public since war was declared last September; Chamberlain had been forced to bring him back into the Cabinet when his warnings over Hitler had, finally, been proved right. But how to play that one card? Churchill settled more firmly into his chair. Say nothing, he thought, see where Halifax stands, whether he wants the job at all, and how much.
"Winston," Chamberlain began, his tone questioning now. "You were very rough on Labour in the debate yesterday. And you have always been their fierce opponent. Do you think this might be an obstacle for you?"
Churchill did not answer, but stood abruptly and walked over to the window, looking out into the bright spring afternoon. Don't reply, he thought. Flush Halifax out.
The carriage clock struck five, a high, pinging sound. As it finished Big Ben began booming out the hour. As the last note died away Halifax finally spoke.
"I think," he said, "that I would be better placed to deal with the Labour men."
Churchill turned and faced him, his expression suddenly fierce. "The trials to be faced, Edward, will be very terrible." Halifax looked tired, desperately unhappy, but there was determination in his face now. He had found steel in himself after all.
"That, Winston, is why I would like you at my side in a new, smaller War Cabinet. You would be Minister of Defense, you would have overall responsibility for conduct of the war."
Churchill considered the offer, moving his heavy jaw slowly from side to side. If he was in charge of the war effort, perhaps he could dominate Halifax, become Prime Minister in all but name. It all depended on who else Halifax put in place. He asked, "And the others? Who will you appoint?"
"From the Conservatives, you and I and Sam Hoare; I think that best reflects the balance of opinion within the party. Attlee for Labour, and Lloyd George to represent the Liberal interest, and as a national figure, the man who led us to victory in 1918." Halifax turned to Chamberlain. "I think you could be of most use now, Neville, as Leader of the Commons."
It was bad news, the worst. Lloyd George who, for all his recent backpedaling, had spent the thirties idolizing Hitler, calling him Germany's George Washington. And Sam Hoare, the arch-appeaser, Churchill's old enemy. Attlee was a fighter, for all his diffidence, but the two of them would be in a minority.
"Lloyd George is seventy-seven," Churchill said. "Is he up to the weight that must be borne?"
"I believe so. And he will be good for morale." Halifax was sounding more resolute now. "Winston," he said, "I would very much like you beside me at this hour."
Churchill hesitated. This new War Cabinet would hobble him. He knew that Halifax had decided to take the premiership reluctantly and out of duty. He would do his best, but his heart was not in the struggle that was coming. Like so many, he had fought in the Great War and feared seeing all that bloodshed again.
Excerpted from Dominion by Ian Sansom. Copyright © 2014 by Ian Sansom. Excerpted by permission of Mulholland. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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