Edwin Montagu, Minister of Munitions and confidant of both Asquith and Lloyd George lamented that the two great men of England were being slowly but surely pushed apart during the winter of 1916.
By the first week of December, Lloyd George had replaced his long-standing colleague as head of the wartime coalition government, amidst accusations that Asquith had fallen victim to his lieutenant’s opportunism.
The exact nature of the ousting is surrounded in mystery and historians continue to dispute the detailed course of events in the immediate days prior to Asquith’s forced resignation. What is certain is that relations between the two men had come under increasing strain during the course of the war, each having very different ideas about the way the campaign should be conducted.
Following military disasters such as the Battle of the Somme, Lloyd George became increasingly critical of Asquith’s failure to wrestle control of defence strategy from his military commanders and his failure to adapt the machinery of Government to the needs of war. The nature of the Dardanelles Committee and the War Committee that eventually replaced it was of particular concern. Their large size and lack of executive powers meant that speedy decisions were not possible, as the final say in any matter continued to rest with the full Cabinet.
Relations between the two men had come under further pressure during the spring of 1916, when Asquith bowed to Cabinet pressure and failed to implement the settlement that Lloyd George had reached with the Irish Nationalists over Home Rule.
Succeeding the deceased Kitchener as Minister of War in June 1915, Lloyd George became increasingly critical of his chief and began moving further away from other Liberal colleagues on key issues such as conscription, which drew him closer to his Conservative coalition partners.
In the summer of 1916 the Admiralty came under specific attack for its failure to obtain a victory over the Germans at the Battle of Jutland. Asquith refused to bow to pressure to dismiss Balfour as Lord of the Admiralty despite concern at the lack of progress being made by Britain’s submarine campaign and in July, the Coalition was almost defeated on a series of minor issues, leading to press speculation about the Government’s downfall.
On 8 November, Lloyd George finally lost his patience and decided that immediate action was needed following the Nigeria debate, when a number of Conservative backbenchers rebelled against the Government. Lloyd George decided that responsibility for the day to day running of the war should be wrestled from the Cabinet and given to a newly created three-man war cabinet, which he himself would chair. Deciding that the Conservative leader, Bonar Law and Unionist chief, Edward Carson should make up the numbers, Lloyd George recruited the press baron, Sir Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) to arrange negotiations on his behalf.
Bonar Law originally rejected the idea as an opportunistic attempt by Lloyd George to pursue his own agenda, but on 20 November the three men met for the first time and decided to present Asquith with the plan. It is clear that Asquith too had his reservations about Lloyd George’s motives. ‘There is one construction and one only that could be put on the new arrangement – that it has been engineered by him with the purpose, not perhaps at the moment but as soon as a fitting pretext could be found, of his displacing me’, he wrote to Bonar Law on 26 November, rejecting the scheme.
Nonetheless, Asquith had apparently been shaken by Lloyd George’s plotting and following a suggestion from Lord Robert Cecil, the Liberal leader decided to regain the initiative, informing the King that he planned to establish a separate civil committee in conjunction to the existing war committee. The new forum would consider domestic matters and those relating to wartime organisation.
Despite the Cabinet’s acceptance of the plan, Lloyd George remained unimpressed, claiming that the proposals would merely add yet another layer of bureaucracy to the decision-making process. On 1 December he penned Asquith a five-point memorandum, warning that he would resign if the Prime Minister rejected the establishment of a three-man committee under his leadership and based upon the membership that he had proposed.
With Lloyd George’s encouragement, the press began to speculate that the War Secretary would soon relinquish his post, taking Bonar Law with him. Such rumours antagonised Bonar Law’s Conservative colleagues, who feared that they were being used by Lloyd George as a pawn in his own opportunistic game. Anxious to maintain the upper hand, Bonar Law confronted Asquith on Sunday 3 December, warning him what the consequences would be if he continued to reject Lloyd George’s demands.
The Prime Minister soon realised that he would have to capitulate if he were to remain in power and his treacherous Liberal deputy was summoned immediately to Downing Street. No one knows for certain exactly what took place during the private meeting that subsequently took place between the two men; no other person was present and thus no formal record of the discussion exists. What is clear is that both men left the meeting satisfied that they had come to some kind of agreement. Lloyd George later wrote in his war memoirs that the two men had discussed the whole situation in the friendliest spirit, and ultimately came to a complete understanding.
It does appear that the two men agreed to re-structure the Government and establish a small war council, under Lloyd George’s leadership. Although the pair had failed to tackle the delicate and difficult question of personnel, both men were satisfied that they had reached an agreement that was acceptable to both sides. Later that night, Asquith issued a statement to the press outlining his intentions, confident that his premiership was no longer under threat.
However, the next morning Asquith was horrified to awake to a Times article which indicated that Lloyd George would be assuming complete control over the war effort and implied that the Prime Minister had essentially been sidelined by his colleague. He immediately wrote to Lloyd George, to clarify their agreement and emphasise that he should retain responsibility for the conduct of the war. Lloyd George immediately wrote back, telling Asquith that he fully accepted in letter and in spirit, the Prime Minister’s suggestion, subject of course to personnel.
Yet, all was not well and by the Monday evening, Asquith had renaged on the agreement, telling Lloyd George that as Prime Minister, he himself should retain the Chairmanship of the proposed war council. The following morning, Tuesday 5 December 1916, Lloyd George submitted his resignation, accusing Asquith of going back on his word. He was joined by Bonar Law and Carson.
The King called the leaders to Buckingham Palace, in an unsuccessful attempt to hold the existing Coalition together under Bonar Law’s leadership. Asquith’s refusal to agree to the scheme condemned him and a number of his supporters to the backbenches, leaving his shadowy rival, Lloyd George to finally assume the Premiership on 7 December.
Historians have subsequently debated the reasons for Asquith’s change of heart. J M McEwen has suggested that events were the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding between the two men over the terms of the war council. It is implied that history could have been very different had the two Liberal colleagues been able to work through their differences.
Other historians such as Trevor Wilson reject such a theory, claiming that it was highly unlikely that Lloyd George and Asquith would ever be able to agree on the membership of the committee. The inclusion of Carson would have been a particularly bitter pill for Asquith to swallow, given the Ulsterman’s open hostility towards him.
Rather, it is suggested that Asquith stepped back from the agreement after feeling humiliated by the tone of the Times article on 4 December and believing its contents to have been inspired by Lloyd George. Some also assert that Asquith was visited by a delegation of Conservatives, who were disgruntled with Lloyd George’s plans on the Sunday evening. It is thought that the ‘3Cs’ (Robert Cecil, Austen Chamberlain and Lord Curzon) may have persuaded the Prime Minister that he had the Cabinet support necessary to resist Lloyd George’s demands.
Nonetheless, whatever the reasons underlying Asquith’s actions, his decision was fatal. Lloyd George’s accession to the premiership exacerbated existing ill-feelings between the two men and produced a devastating chasm within the Liberal Party, as Lloyd George’s Liberal supporters remained alongside him in the Coalition government, whilst Asquith’s loyal followers left to join their leader in opposition. Wilson writes that ‘as participants left the major party meeting, which took place at the Reform Club on the 8th December 1916, and went their separate ways, the old Liberal party was dispersing forever’.