Although he was defeated in his first attempt to enter Parliament in 1899, Churchill’s fame following his dramatic escape from the Boers tipped the balance in the election of 1900. He achieved a small majority and won his longed-for ‘seat’ as a Conservative MP for Oldham, Lancashire, beginning a political career that would last over sixty years.
He made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on 18 February 1901 at the age of twenty-six, speaking immediately after Lloyd George, ensuring the young politician a very full house. Churchill had prepared his speech very carefully and more or less learned it by heart. Although this isn’t unusual in a maiden speaker, Churchill – more unusually – continued this meticulous preparation throughout his career.
I am an English Liberal. I hate the Tory party, their men, their words and their methods. I feel no sort of sympathy with them – except to my own people at Oldham.
Churchill to Lord Hugh Cecil (unsent), 24 October 1903
Churchill’s relationship with the Conservative party grew increasingly fractious. He was an instinctive free trader, while the party was moving towards protectionism. The Conservatives, associated with the Church of England, the monarchy and the established upper class, were generally resistant to social change. Churchill was all for change – and all for making a name for himself. With his friend Lord Hugh Cecil, he organized a group of young conservative MPs specializing in the harassment of their own leaders. They called themselves, unwisely perhaps, the Hughligans. Increasingly critical of the government, and strongly in favour of free trade, Churchill eventually ‘crossed the floor’ in 1904, defecting to the Liberal party, to sit next to David Lloyd George.
He quickly established himself as a rising – yet controversial and occasionally pushy – star in political circles. He was admired and disliked in almost equal measure – for his charisma, his ideas (some of which were brilliant; some, not), his recklessness, his ambition and his self-absorption. And he didn’t hesitate to express his own views.
It would be more than twenty years before he would make the switch again to rejoin the Conservative Party.