Fumbling through the Wilderness - a TL from 1918

Prologue - The Liberal splinters and the coupon election of 1918

In its British form especially, political liberalism has never survived as a monolith force. A loose coalition of interests characterised by a fierce individualism, to lead it meant not just shepherding a flock as stopping every member running in ten directions at once. Its future always seemingly in the balance, it had never looked bleaker for those Liberals not aligned to David Lloyd George’s Coalition when the general election results were declared on the 28th December 1918.

Lloyd George had, in alliance with discontents in his own party and with Unionist backing, replaced H.H. Asquith as Prime Minister in the winter of 1916 in the hope of providing more robust leadership in the First World War. Although Asquith had become increasingly ineffective as a wartime leader, he remained as the official leader of the Liberals, meaning much of the party machine stayed under his control. Lloyd George was thus in the paradoxical position of being a Liberal who lead a government but not his own party.

Although many contrasted the two men, Asquith and Lloyd George were surprisingly similar. They were both proud, gifted, hardworking men, moved by powerful emotions. It really came down to a question of decisiveness, and Asquith fell fatally short. He clung on to the leadership out of spite, but as he steadily waned in influence he failed time and again to assert himself. The non-Lloyd George Liberals chafed under a reluctant figurehead, casting their hopes around for a saviour. The new Prime Minister appeared far more dynamic and energetic than his predecessor and soon became convinced that the old partisan divides were irrelevant in a world that had endured the slaughter of the Great War. The way forward was to unite those Liberals and Unionists who came under his banner into a new force.

The advantages of a Lloyd George-Conservative alliance were multiple: it meant giving the Prime Minister a solid political base, since there was no way back to the official Liberal Party for him. It also suited the Conservative and Unionist Party; they would permit a Liberal to continue in office but the power belonged to them. They could cash in on the Prime Minister's great prestige as the Man Who Won the War and cynically use him as a shield to defend Unionist policies when the time came. A divided opposition would only benefit them.

And yet, David Lloyd George could be surprisingly sincere when he wanted to be. He struck up an effective working relationship with his nonimal deputy, Andrew Bonar Law, the Conservative leader, and the man who had permitted Lloyd George to form a government in the first place. The two both hailed from relatively humble, provincial backgrounds, both were non-English, both had made their fortune rather than inherited it.

Going into the 1918 election together, in the heady atmosphere of victory, the two of them knew they had secured an enormous mandate. All Coalition Candidates had received a letter of personal endorsement from Lloyd George and Law, dismissively referred to by Asquith as a "coupon". The results were going to be declared on 28th December to account for soldiers still oversees, but for the non-Lloyd George Liberals, the doom and despair hung over them terribly. After a bitter and ill-tempered campaign, Asquith's certain defeat in East Fife symbolised to many the last rites of independent Liberalism as a great vacuum would emerg on the centre-left, to be filled by rampant socialism or by a Lloyd George Liberal Party when the Conservatives tired of him, when they rejected the hypocrite, the betrayer.

It was in this poisonous atmosphere that as he awaited his certain electoral doom, Asquith suffered a devastating stroke on Christmas Day. The last few years had brought personal ruin and although he was bitterly tempted to outlast Lloyd George, he knew he was finished. He was no Gladstone, a dominating leader who overcame division to lead his Party back to power. There would be no Liberal revival. The crushing defeat for the independent Liberals announced a few days later confirmed, and then worsened the deepest fears: only 29 non-couponed Liberals scraped through. Only 3 had any government experience in minor cabinet roles. All the great Liberal personalities that had not joined Lloyd George were defeated: Reginald McKenna, John Simon, Herbert Samuel, McKinnon Wood among them.

For the shattered and demoralised Independent Liberals it all seemed to be over. The abyss of irrelevance beckoned.

Or so it seemed.

OOC: This is my first timeline so I hope you forgive my prose, comment, and enjoy what I have planned! Any questions are welcome.
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A Note on Historiography:
Between the end of WWI and the first Labour government of the 1920s, the 1918-22 parliament tends to be forgotten. The behemoth Coalition government had largerly no opposition. The Labour party technically held more seats than the anti-Coalition Liberals, but Labour were reluctant to press their claim as the main Opposition Party, suggesting a reticence to take part in government. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition was counted to be Donald Maclean, appointed by Asquith as "sessional chairman" until he could return to the Commons at a later by-election. Roy Douglas in The History of the Liberal Party 1895–1970 that "the technical question whether the Leader of the Opposition was Maclean or William Adamson, Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, was never fully resolved. ...that Adamson did not press his claim for Opposition leadership is of more than technical interest, for it shows that the Labour Party was still not taking itself seriously as a likely alternative government".

The explosive defeat in the 1918 election was followed by four years of confused turf war between the Liberal factions. Although the anti-Coalition Liberals are commonly called "Asquithian", I think this term confuses the matter. The Independent Liberals accepted Maclean as their Parliamentary leader, but they appointed their own Whip (a kind of parliamentary facilitator) to serve alongside the one Asquith had appointed. Many leading anti-Coalitioners were pressing Asquith to resign in the early months of 1919 when he remained very unpopular, and he served as a reluctant figurehead until his return to Parliament at the Paisley by-election of 1920.

Even then, his leadership still lacked energy and focus, and by 1921 many Independent Liberals were either seeking reunion with Lloyd George-ite Liberals (since they vastly outnumbered the Independent Liberals in the Commons, and Lloyd George had stature and drive), or agitating for a new leader such as John Simon or even Maclean himself. The designation of "independent" Liberal is also not 100% accurate, since some uncouponed Liberals (such as George Lambert) inclined towards the Coalition, some (T. Bramsdon of Portsmouth Central) had been elected by promising >not< to support Asquith.

The point is, I think, that Liberalism was diversely represented in the 1918-22 Parliament but could broadly fall into pro/anti-Lloyd George camps. Labour did not want to step into the breach even though they had won more votes and seats at the 1918 election; Labour and the Independent Liberals co-operated for the first few months of 1919 in by-elections, and were on semi-equal pegging, but wanting for leadership and inspiration, the Independent Liberals were soon outpaced. With the right leader and a clear strategy however, from the start the Liberals could bounce back...
Asquith's Out
Asquith was beat. There was no questioning that. But who would replace him?

On the surface, Lloyd George could easily fill his shoes. He was Prime Minister after all, and his Coalition Liberals were by far the largest Liberal grouping elected. The new Parliament hadn't met yet after the election, so the few uncouponed Liberals who made it through the electoral massacre had not formally organised themselves into any anti or pro-coalition group. The anti-Lloyd George faction existed primarily in the remains of the Asquith cabinet that had retired into opposition in 1916, all its major figures now rejected at the ballot box.

The fear was that if Asquith resigned the leadership of the Party, no viable alternate leader to Lloyd George existed. The Prime Minister could swoop in and leave the anti-coalitioners even more isolated than before. It might very well mean the Liberal Party survived, but not in a way that many could accept; allowing a man as opportunistic and lacking in integrity as David Lloyd George to seize their Party and to surrender to him. More pragmatic people might accept this and move on, waiting to take back control of the Party. But for the Independent Liberals it was a question of principle where Lloyd George lacked it - how could they accept him as leader?

For now the remaining Liberals needed to take stock of what had happened. The new Parliament would meet in the New Year, and then they could properly begin opposing the government. That left just over a month to find a new leader. Reginald McKenna, a man who had been in government since before Herbert Asquith had become Prime Minister, and who was certainly in the running to succeed him by 1915, urged his former chief to delay his resignation until the Executive of the National Liberal Federation had met in January and the party machine could rally round a new leader.

Now they just needed a candidate.
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Interesting. Will be watching.

The ship may have sailed by this point but I do have some respect for McKenna. To my knowledge he was pretty competent wherever he was placed.
Interesting. Will be watching.

The ship may have sailed by this point but I do have some respect for McKenna. To my knowledge he was pretty competent wherever he was placed.
TBH the interests of the Liberal Party would be best served by them giving up and acting like adults instead of sulking. If they revive to any degree it will just make the Liberal decline terminal.
This is interesting. I wonder what the effects of the divergences will be on the 1920s in Britain. Certainly not the best of times - maybe it will be better, maybe not.
I like this TL and I will be reading it. Did Asquith have a devastating stroke on Christmas Day 1918 in OTL?
Interesting. Will be watching.

The ship may have sailed by this point but I do have some respect for McKenna. To my knowledge he was pretty competent wherever he was placed.

Thank you for the interest!

I think the 1923 resurgence for the Liberals was a swansong, really, but by 1918 I think it's salvageable. After all the infighting (and the collapse in the constituencies, so even if people wanted to vote Liberal, they couldn't), in 1922 they were in 3rd place by only 0.9% of the vote and 27 seats. In the by-elections in 1919 up until Manchester Rusholme (counting the by-elections contested by the Independent Liberals) they had a pretty decent showing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_...tions_(1918–1931)#31st_Parliament_(1919–1922). With an established leader they can make the most of that initial bump.

McKenna was competent and reliable, although he could be prickly and thin-skinned, he's a steady pair of hands. We'll see how he does.

TBH the interests of the Liberal Party would be best served by them giving up and acting like adults instead of sulking. If they revive to any degree it will just make the Liberal decline terminal.

Do you mean that if the Liberals do better they will crash and burn faster?

This is interesting. I wonder what the effects of the divergences will be on the 1920s in Britain. Certainly not the best of times - maybe it will be better, maybe not.

Some things will be better, some worse, but on the whole broadly positive, like with all things it depends where you are in the pile.

I like this TL and I will be reading it. Did Asquith have a devastating stroke on Christmas Day 1918 in OTL?

Thank you Pipisme! H.H. Asquith did not have any strokes (as far as I know) until 1926, but I thought it was a convenient way to remove him from the leadership where sadly he did more harm than good in staying on after 1918, in my opinion. David Owen has said that by modern standards he would be an alcoholic Premier. I also had in the back of my mind a quotation from Margot Asquith, that if he had died in 1916, his legacy would be far better.

Asquith will reappear in this TL, but for now he will enjoy being the Earl of Walmer.
Sorry i was not clear. I meant that the independent Liberals and Asquiths petulant behaviour did far more damage to the Liberal cause than anything LG did. They were largely little men with little talent and the party and the country would have been better off without them. Any great success for them will not improve matters.
Sorry i was not clear. I meant that the independent Liberals and Asquiths petulant behaviour did far more damage to the Liberal cause than anything LG did. They were largely little men with little talent and the party and the country would have been better off without them. Any great success for them will not improve matters.

Asquith's attitude and refusal to show more punch certainly didn't help, hence his early removal here. But you've hit on the problem the Independent Liberals have - they are a small group that really won't make any difference in the long run unless they reunite with the rest of the Liberals. Whether they do remains to be seen.
In which McKenna discovers that in politics gravity can drag you upwards
If you wanted a new leader you could be forgiven for thinking that the first place to start was with the loose group of uncouponed Liberals who had made it through in 1918.

But they were scattered and disorganised. Most survived through hard campaigning or in most cases, plenty of luck. Some inclined towards the Coalition, some were firmly against, and some even gravitated to Labour. At best, they had all held ambivalent feelings about Asquith's continued leadership, and more than a few were quietly relieved when the news of his stroke came.

His stroke gave Asquith an excuse to retire gracefully, if rather reluctantly, rather than be forced out by an increasingly restive Party. It would also prevent an undignified decline. More recent historiography has interpreted his decision to go as not entirely unwilling – the former Chief Secretary to Ireland, Augustine Birrell, had written to Asquith shortly after his election defeat that he was “better off out of it for the time, than watching Ll. G. lead apes to Hell”. (1)

With the old man set to retire, the vacuum he left behind had to be filled quickly. Only 3 of the 30 or so uncouponed Liberals had any government experience, and even then at a minor level.

The most senior was Francis Acland, a former Undersecretary in the Treasury and the Foreign Office. He and the former government whip, William Wedgwood Benn, both regarded Asquith as far too Whiggish and old-fashioned to meet the challenges of the postwar world, but for the time being they remained publicly loyal. The final member of this group was George Lambert, who after a long career in the Admiralty Office had grown friendly towards the Coalition, and would soon defect when it appeared likely that Asquith would resign and no viable replacement could be found.

Either Acland or Wedgwood Benn might have had a chance, but whether they had the skill, the patience, and the stature to rebuild a shattered movement largely by themselves was another thing entirely.

The problems facing the Independent Liberals were immense. Not only did the Coalition have an enormous majority that could last for several elections, David Lloyd George was at his mesmeric height. A statesman of international renown who would now embark on dealing with the defeated Central Powers at the Paris Peace Conference, he seemed to have almost outgrown domestic politics.

Such a reputation wouldn’t last forever but for now everyone else was in his shadow. One of the few benefits Asquith had was the status of a former Prime Minister, having been one of the very few men alive to have tasted and used such enormous power. Although he was exhausted as a political force, at the same time contrasts would be made between him and his successor, and that person and David Lloyd George. The Liberals weren’t just choosing a new leader: they were offering up a potential Prime Minister.

The great personalities of the last Asquith cabinet had either gone over to the Coalition or departed the political scene after 1916. After 1918 only three remained in the running: Herbert Samuel, John Simon, and Reginald McKenna, all defeated in the election. Other grandees, like Edward Grey and Richard Haldane, had left for the Lords, effectively retiring from frontline politics.

Herbert Samuel had been a relative latecomer to high office, reaching Home Secretary by 1915 after a number of junior ministerial office. He was now deeply involved in setting up the League of Nations Mandate in Palestine and would become the first High Commissioner in 1920.

John Simon was a brilliant lawyer, but lacked the personal touch and had few followers. Although a formidable intellect, his resignation of the issue of enforced conscription in 1916 had confirmed his status as a loner in the Party.

That left Reginald McKenna. Efficient and with a good eye for detail, he had served in government since 1905 in a variety of posts: Education, the Admiralty, Home Secretary, and finally Chancellor. McKenna was also unfortunately thin-skinned, an unappealing combination of being combative and fastidious.

Perhaps this was all stemmed from when as First Lord of the Admiralty, his estimates on naval spending had been intensely criticised by Lloyd George and Churchill, way back in 1906. Even then, McKenna had had little patience for their abundant personalities, thinking it got in the way of actual governing and policy-making, although he acknowledged they were effective.

They just didn’t have to be such bloody show-offs, as he later put it.

But across the temperamental divide McKenna could be relied upon to do a job well in difficult circumstances, dealing in turn with suffragist and suffragette violence, rioting miners, and Irish Unionists agitating against Home Rule. Indeed, having proposed an opt-out for any Ulster county and with an Irish family, the failure of Home Rule would hang over his head for many years to come.

McKenna had considered abandoning politics altogether after his defeat; he was lining up to become the Chairman of the Midland Bank. But after Asquith’s stroke on Christmas Day, it was his incisive understanding of why the anti-Coalition Liberals did so badly that propelled him close to the leadership.

McKenna’s thesis was twofold: ignoring three-cornered contests where a Liberal had to fight uphill, there were two strong reasons for the defeat being on such a catastrophic level. The party machine had rusted through the War (while the Unionists and Labour had aggressively built up a solid base) so traditional Liberal voters drifted away from a Party they perceived as stagnant and unrepresentative of their interests.

But (and connected to the first reason) the Liberals were “not thought of as sufficiently venomous”. With slogans like “hang the Kaiser” bandied about in the election and posters in Asquith’s constituency pointedly asking “are you going to let him spoil the Peace?”, the Liberals came across as weak and timid. They lacked courage and resolve and needed fire in their belly.

McKenna went further: the relatively few Independent Liberals elected shouldn’t obscure the fact that as a political force, Liberalism was still strong in the country. After all, they had just voted in a Liberal Prime Minister. He might be just so happen to be a prisoner of the Tories, but still.

What was needed was a new plan to rebuild the neglected and moribund constituency parties, to inspire new members to canvass for a Liberal vote, and to capture all the hopeful energy that had collected around Lloyd George and would eventually find him lacking. The Liberals had to be there to pick up the pieces.

As if this wasn’t enough for some, McKenna continued in this provocative line of thinking. The only way back to power was, he argued, by seeking common cause with the Labour Party. Their immediate program of social reform was essentially the same. The 1918 election had seen many millions of working-class men and women cast their vote for the first time, and for the middle-class reformers on the centre-left, any anti-Tory force had to constructively engage with socialists, however much it damaged their pride and sense of independence. (2)

In the shock and the anger of the great defeat of 1918, this was too much thinking for some, but as the Independent Liberals digested his analysis, McKenna’s lucid and challenging logic held true. He had said what Asquith could not, and had been unable to address really since 1916, and by saying what they all knew to be true but hadn’t admitted, the words now clung to him, whether he wanted them to or not.

McKenna didn’t fancy the gruelling task of fighting in Opposition, but as his colleagues either stayed silent or let him do the talking, he began to assume the quiet confidence of those who know the facts are on their side. Some accommodation had to be made with Labour, eventually, and Asquith was no longer an effective leader. But had he said too much too soon?

The Liberals were still in a defensive and confused mood, and so as to not appear disloyal, a deputation of leading Liberals including McKenna, Acland, Walter Runciman, and the secretary of the National Liberal Federation, Sir Robert Hudson, visited Asquith on the morning of the 4th January.

The old man’s mind was in good form, but he was confined to a wheelchair to move about, and was attented to by his wife Margot and daughter Violet. The stroke had sharpened his mind in ways that a fatal situation often does. The assembled Liberals put it to their apparent leader that it was better to retire gracefully and allow a younger man to take the fight to Lloyd George, a man who could unburden him of the heavy duty of leadership. McKenna had once been a protege of Asquith's, in much the same way Lloyd George had been at first. Asquith had never quite grown to fully like the man now standing before him, but he trusted him.

Asquith knew what they wanted. He knew he wouldn't have much chance if tried to fight on. But it could also be someone else’s problem now. That other Liberals such as Runciman and Acland had come along with McKenna made it clear they at least agreed in principle to him taking over.

It also meant that McKenna could not be accused of hounding his leader to go, Asquith told himself dryly.

He consented, agreeing to nominate McKenna for the leadership when the Executive of the National Liberal Federation met later that month.

Then the wider Party would have to accept him…

1 See Roy Jenkins’ Biography on Asquith, page 480.

2 Adapted from Asquith by Stephen Koss, 239-40. McKenna’s advice is all from OTL from December 29th.
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McKenna will need to return to the House of Commons in a by-election, if he becomes leader of the Liberal Party.
Indeed, that will be addressed in a future update. In OTL Asquith waited until Paisley in 1920, but McKenna will be finding a seat quicker. I have one in mind. I will also address who will be the Commons Leader. OTL Asquith chose Donald Maclean.
Good update
Glad you think so! Not too long, readable enough?
Indeed, that will be addressed in a future update. In OTL Asquith waited until Paisley in 1920, but McKenna will be finding a seat quicker. I have one in mind. I will also address who will be the Commons Leader. OTL Asquith chose Donald Maclean.

Glad you think so! Not too long, readable enough?
Seems about the right length, and I can definitely read it.
The germ of this TL
Fascinating. A genuine “path not taken”. They are the best PoDs IMHO, especially as follow ons to an earlier PoD.

This is shaping up to be a really interesting TL.
Thanks! And indeed, there's a lot of potential in McKenna's analysis that wasn't followed OTL. I took it from Asquith by Stephen Koss, page 239-40. I'll reproduce the relevant section here since I didn't get to a scanner today.

"Reginald McKenna...ventured a "personal opinion" on the situation. There were, he told A.G. Gardiner on the 29th, "two outstanding reasons" for the debacle, "apart from the losses caused by three-cornered fights" in which independent Liberal candidates were simply overwhelmed: on the one hand, as indicated by the "small poll all over the country", the Liberal machine had been allowed to rust during the "long years of political truce", with the result that traditionally "Liberal voters were apathetic and even resentful"; on the other hand, "anti-Germanism and the desire for revenge were strong among large numbers of people who voted for the Government in the belief they would get all the indemnities Germany could pay and more". McKenna's second point, that "the Liberals are not thought of as a party to be sufficiently venemous", was illustrated at East Fife by placards that bluntly proclaimed: "Asquith nearly lost you the War, are you going to let him spoil the Peace?"

"Hoping that the weakness of Liberalism (as he defined it) in the new Parliament would not be permitted to obscure the fact that it remained "really strong in the country" (as he gauged it), McKenna preached the necessity "to make up for 4 years of neglect and get to spade work in constituencies". At least in his mind, there was no doubt this objective could best be achieved by "finding a name, a formula, and a man to unite Liberal and Labour. There is no difference in our immediate political programme".

I remember reading this and thought...if the Liberals had taken all this on board they'd have saved themselves a lot of trouble!
Reservations and Recriminations
Although anyone could theoretically be elected Liberal leader through a vote of MPs, if another faction controlled the National Liberal Federation, they could appoint another figure who had the backing of the best part of the Party machine (as constituencies remained fairly autonomous) as nominal leader. This was possible even if they did not technically command a majority in elected parliamentarians.

With McKenna emerging pre-eminent among the anti-Coalitioners to become official Party leader, it meant the establishment of two separate Liberal Parties almost inevitable. McKenna and his more strident colleagues considered such a split to merely formalise the distinctions made in the 1918 election, but others were more cautious. Lloyd George would spend most of 1919 basking in the glow of the Paris Peace Conference as an international statesman. He had not yet fallen to the depths that would claim his premiership and the fear was that if too many Independent Liberals were antagonised, they would all bolt to the Coalition.

The reasons why the Prime Minister did not immediately overtake the remaining Liberals have been variously debated. He still held some regard for Asquith, even having asked him to join the government in the last days of 1918, and memories of their many years in government increased after Asquith’s stroke. It is also correct that pushing to have himself elected leader of the entire Parliamentary Party would unnecessarily antagonise the Unionists and give the impression of creating an alternate power base not under their control.

The simple answer was that Lloyd George was much too busy. He spent nearly of all 1919 attending the Paris Peace Conferences, leaving domestic affairs to Bonar Law, who had effectively become Deputy Prime Minister. The two enjoyed a productive working relationship. McKenna was to him an irrelevant figurehead.

On of the other side of the fence, some Independent Liberals (named so by future historians for the sake of convenience and not because they would definitively embrace that label) argued against rushing to replace Asquith with another anti-Lloyd George figure. Politically speaking the Prime Minister was the far more powerful Liberal, and if they desired reunion they would have to keep on semi-favourable terms. They mostly came from the right wing of the Party and favoured the coalition with the Conservatives.

The 1918-22 Parliament has been described as a civil war between Liberals of various stripes. It was all a question of purity.

When the National Liberal Federation met in late January 1919 and nominated McKenna as the new leader, John Simon responded well. McKenna’s history as a former Liberal Imperial on the right wing of the Party (but not a libertarian in the modern sense), and a capable administrator with not too many radical instincts were advantages. However, he fiercely opposed McKenna’s proposal of working with Labour, arguing the Liberals had to be the vanguard against socialism.

Unfortunately for Simon, he was the kind of person who when he opposed something it made a lot of people think it was actually a good idea. Labour had not yet totally won the devotion of the working classes, and although they outranked the Liberals in terms of the number of MPs, the latter firmly carried the weight of experience.

Francis Acland and William Wedgwood Benn were more welcoming to McKenna. He represented a figure of authority under whom they could rebuild while the younger generation implemented a more radical course. McKenna would be 59 in 1922, the likely date of the next election, whereas Acland and Benn were both in their late 40s and would lead the next generation of radicals.

If McKenna wanted to be an effective leader however he needed a seat in Parliament or else he’d be stuck on the sidelines. It was a matter of selecting a by-election for a winnable Liberal seat, for a defeat of their leader would bring a great humiliation they might not recover from. By replacing Asquith, the fact had been acknowledged that the future was up for grabs, and it was only a matter of time.

For now, McKenna designated Francis Acland as Parliamentary Chairman, with Benn as his Chief Whip, pending the meeting of the new Parliament where a formal group might organise.

By setting up an “alternate” Liberal Party, open war had been declared on Lloyd George, requiring Liberals to choose between the two factions. McKenna hoped he could make a difference against this mountain of a government by identifying the Prime Minister as a prisoner of the Unionists. If people really wanted a radical government, they’d know who to vote for. And if they could break the Coalition, the dissident Liberals would return to the fold, so went the argument.

On the 3rd of February a rancorous meeting of 20 Independent Liberals met in the Commons, united only by their anti-Coalition stance. They were mostly glad to see Asquith gone, and some opposed the “stitch-up” of McKenna taking his place. Although he was acknowledged as more effective, such a provocative action might further split the Party. At this time the government whip had been indiscriminately applied to all Liberals, couponed or not, after the election. (1)

Francis Acland spoke in favour of setting up an independent Liberal faction, arguing that voters would soon find Lloyd George lacking and they had to be ready to carry on their Liberal traditions. At this, the pro-Coalitionist George Lambert silently left the meeting, bringing several MPs with him.

The remaining MPs were also sceptical of accepting McKenna without a definite sign he could soon return to Parliament and not be a figurehead. Acland conceded this and insisted he would bring the fight to the government.

After further arguing the group passed a broad anti-Coalition motion and voted in Francis Acland as their Chairman. Although Benn was nominated as a whip, the group also insisted on former parliamentary official Donald Maclean serving with him, signalling to Acland (and thus McKenna) that just as they accepted them as leaders, they still took matters into their own hands. Maclean had much greater experience than Benn, and would help anchor the gaggle of independents they now commanded.

Several days later every Liberal MP was invited to a much larger meeting to discuss reunion, if not some kind of working relationship as a first step on the way. Acland, Maclean, and Benn were all noticeably absent. With McKenna against it and Lloyd George leading aloof, it was not surprising that one month later, the prospect was abandoned. The split had been formalised (or confirmed, depending on your view).

Now the battle for the soul of Liberalism really began.

1 – This happened OTL after the 1918 election. I think it was a unity gesture by Lloyd George who still had some regard for Asquith.
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Early Steps
After the excitement surrounding Reginald McKenna becoming Liberal leader and the creation of a separate Party to challenge Lloyd George, things quietened down for a time.

Much of the attention was still on the Prime Minister gracing the world stage at the Paris Peace Conference. Asquith remained extremely unpopular for his poor leadership in the War, and his stroke had given him plenty of time to withdraw from public life, leaving McKenna and Acland to play second fiddle.

This suddenly changed with the Leyton West by-election on 1st March. The previous Conservative MP had suddenly died of an illness, and after a campaigning on them having won the War, they lost the seat to the Independent Liberals on a swing of 24.7%. Although this could be attributed to a much lower turnout than at the election, even explained away as a freak result, the swing gave the Liberals great confidence, and a sense of wild disbelief. Even after their slow march back to relevancy, Leyton West was a reminder that all was not lost.

Oxford University remained in Tory hands later on that month, but that was to be expected. The second great boost came at Kingston upon Hull Central on the 29th, where Joseph Kenworthy stormed home with 52.8% of the vote. The two victories have been ascribed to the Liberals opposing peacetime conscription now the War was over, while Kenworthy had especially fought against saddling Germany with unpayable reparations. The Conservative campaign in both contests was lacklustre, and it soon became apparent that they couldn't rely on the star power of the Prime Minister. Even today, the twin victories at Leyton West and Kingston upon Hull Central stand out as the most remarkable (and unexpected) by-election victories of the time.

Then again, the electorate was reacting to the wild optimism and spite of the 1918 election campaign, and regretting the viciousness it had responded to. Now, politics was beginning to normalise.

Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire Central on the 16th April proved a worrying omen. Traditionally a Liberal safe seat, the previous Liberal MP, John Henderson, had lost his seat by a narrow margin in the last election. He had been the member for West Aberdeenshire for 13 years, and it looked like he would stand as an Independent Liberal, i.e., an anti-Lloyd George candidate. This posed some difficulty for the Prime Minister, since he would in effect have to endorse a Conservative candidate against a Liberal.

McKenna was keen to court Henderson and force Lloyd George to back the Conservative candidate by default. However, Henderson proved unwilling to take sides in the conflict, announcing his willingness to join the Coalition. Not all Liberals had gone over to the anti-Lloyd George camp, and some resented the attacks against a still popular Prime Minister. The matter remained unresolved until the local Conservative constituency, never entirely happy with having to back a Liberal, announced they would put up their own candidate. Depressed, Henderson withdrew, and the visible split in the Liberal camps was enough to hand the seat to the Tories by 500 votes.

The by-election highlighted the great risk to McKenna of openly attacking the Prime Minister so soon - many traditional Liberals were still allied to him as an anti-Socialist bulwark, and if they pressed the issue too much they could cause a permanent rupture. The fact that the anti-Coalition vote was over 50% did encourage the Independent Liberals. For now, they had to be careful. The Times described the result as proving that popular opinion was moving against the government, but that the Liberals were dimly, if persistently, ahead of Labour.

For McKenna, the priority was in finding a parliamentary seat. Any defeat, however, would mean the end of his career, so it wasn't a case of standing in the next by-election. It had to be a winnable seat. He had half toyed with standing at Aberdeenshire and Kincardine Central if John Henderson had withdrawn, but the bitter Liberal split had made him draw back.

The other half of the McKenna strategy had been to co-operate with Labour in those seats either Party could win, and a lack of Labour candidates had helped the Liberals in their previous contests. In Wales, however, Labour support was growing among the working classes, but the Liberals could still claim to be the main anti-Conservative force. Thus when the seat of Swansea East fell vacant and a by-election was called for July, McKenna made the decision to stand. He had previously represented North Monmouthshire but been defeated at the new seat of Pontypool in 1918, and a return to Wales proved more appealing than Scotland.

The thing was, the other Liberal leader was as Welsh as they came. Determined not to be defeated on his home turf, Lloyd George selected as the Coalition candidate a local, David Matthews, a Welsh nationalist who was active in the community. Labour let it known that they would fight the seat hard, and the prospect of facing off against another Liberal and a Labour candidate proved troubling. McKenna didn't have the same credentials as Lloyd George or Matthews, and in a firmly parochial contest, the rank outsider would have a tough time.

For now, much as it pained him, he withdrew. Another seat would come. He had to be patient. Matthews duly won, so it was technically a Liberal victory, but not for the right team. McKenna didn't blame Labour for their determination to fight the seat - they had, after all, had a good showing in 1918. There were more opportunities to be had outside of Wales, he conceded.

A strong Labour victory over the Coalition Liberal candidate at Bothwell later in July showed that the two needed to work together better. It might be good for Coalition Liberals to lose their seats, but as the Aberdeenshire debacle had proved, Liberal opinion was still mostly unclaimed by either the Coalition or the Independent Liberals but seemed to move towards either side, depending on the contest, and on the constituency. It might push the militant anti-socialists towards the Coalition if McKenna was seen to work with Labour, but the two Parties had little choice.

An example of this productive engagement came at Widnes in August when the Liberals stood down, allowing the Labour grandee Arthur Henderson to return to Parliament. Henderson had been one of several key figures defeated in 1918, but more importantly as a former Labour leader he had argued for closer relations with the Liberals. A moderate, transitional figure whose politics lay in compromise, he was exactly the kind of man McKenna could (and had, in the Asquith coalition of 1915-16) work with.

By keeping moderate Labour opinion on their side, McKenna had tacitly admitted that the next government would have to involve them in some way - either a coalition or a confidence and supply agreement, but he gambled that the Liberals gained more than they lost. It was a tricky balancing act, but it had to be done, he preached, for the necessity of staying afloat. At any moment, a Labour leader could break off the working arrangements and claim the Opposition mantle.

This did not always convince other Liberals - at Pontefract, in October, a Coalition-backed Liberal, Walter Forrest, defeated a Labour candidate by canvassing for Tory support. The fact that a coalition minister, Thomas MacNamara, had come to the constituency to speak for the Liberal cause and stressed the unity of the Liberal-Tory arrangement, had annoyed the Independent Liberals. Forrest had also addressed Conservative associations in the campaign, taking up the Liberal theme of ending conscription, an opposition which had helped bring the great victories at Leyton West and Kingston upon Hull Central for the Independent Liberals in the spring.

If the government Liberals were stealing their own voters, what would this leave for them? On the other side of the fence, Labour were increasingly agitating for an independent path. Some leading figures like Henderson had welcomed the McKenna strategy, but others did not take to the Liberals, outnumbered as they were by Labour in the Commons, insisting on taking the lead. At Pontefract a local concern was the future of the mining industry, and both McKenna and Forrest opposed nationalisation, which many Labour voters supported. The Independent Liberals had proposed a scheme of sharing profits and improving worker conditions, but this didn't quite cut it.

Something would have to give.