According to A. J. P. Taylor, the historic Liberal Party committed suicide on 9 May 1918 in a parliamentary debate which saw the former Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith openly inferring that his former Liberal colleague and wartime Premier, David Lloyd George had misled the House of Commons about the number of British troops serving on the Western front during a German attack in March of that year.
Two days before Asquith confronted the Prime Minister, The Times published a letter written by the former Director of Military Operations, Major General Sir Frederick Maurice. The correspondence accused Lloyd George of providing false information to Parliament following the German attack, during which British forces had sustained heavy bombardment. Maurice claimed that the Welsh premier wished to disguise the fact that British troops in the area had been depleted following Lloyd George’s decision to reject military advice and siphon off soldiers to serve in Palestine.
John Gooch claims that Maurice had written to the War Cabinet on a number of previous occasions, objecting to the Prime Minister’s policy and warning of the consequences. Aggrieved at Lloyd George’s attempts to place responsibility for his actions onto the heads of serving soldiers, Maurice decided that the matter warranted further investigation. When a last plea to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) went unheeded, Maurice decided to make his accusations public.
For Asquith’s supporters, who had still not forgiven Lloyd George for splitting the Liberal Party and usurping their leader in 1916, Maurice’s accusations provided the perfect opportunity to call the Prime Minister’s conduct into question. Egged on by his colleagues, Asquith pressed for a Parliamentary debate on the issue, in which he demanded a select committee inquiry into the charges.
Yet rather than managing to humiliate Lloyd George, Asquith was overwhelmed by the power of the great orator, who defended his position by revealing that the figures he had used had come from Maurice’s own department at the War Office. The Prime Minister’s decision to treat the matter as a dramatic measure of confidence in the wartime coalition made Asquith’s dry technical arguments seem irrelevant and partisan and the House divided in support of the Government by 293 votes to 106.
Historians have long argued about the significance of the Maurice debate on the overall decline of the Liberal Party, but it certainly cemented the two-way split between the Party, 71 Liberals supporting Lloyd George and 98 following Asquith into the division lobby.
The debate also exacerbated the personal division between Lloyd George and Asquith, although Trevor Wilson suggests that the event did not entirely sever relations between the two Liberals, as the Premier invited his former colleague to join his Cabinet as Lord Chancellor just a few months afterwards.
Lloyd George famously claimed that his officials had used the division on the debate as the acid test to decide which Liberal candidates would be endorsed by the Coalition government in the 1918 election through the coupon. However, Wilson claims that this claim can be disputed as only 53 of the 229 Liberals who were denied the coupon had voted against the Government following the Maurice debate.
Whatever the short-term effects of what Kenneth Morgan has described as ‘the most serious partisan crisis of the War’ it is clear that the public display of antagonism within the Liberal Party’s ranks undermined its position in the country.