After the failure of his unintended months in government, Peel was inclined to bide his time and avoid any action that might lead to an immediate return to power. He was anxious that William IV should not attempt another coup against the Whigs since he believed that this would inevitably lead to defeat for the King and further damage to the constitutional authority of the Crown.
More ‘constructive opposition’ 1835-1837
In 1835 and 1836, Peel was especially concerned about the conduct of Tories in the House of Lords. There was a real danger that the attitude of the Ultras might put the Lords on a collision course with the Commons and this did not fit with Peel’s notion of opposition. This can be seen in the opposition of Ultras in the Lords to the Municipal Corporations Bill in 1835. Peel supported the measure recognising that it sought to establish an efficient and honest system of local government but he was unable to control the Conservative peers. Peel’s fear was that the actions of the peers might tempt the Whigs to resign and force a constitutional crisis. Fortunately, the Whigs proved willing to make some compromises and this proved sufficient for a settlement to be reached.
Peel, shortly before the crisis, had indicated his willingness to support reasonable measures of reform and his determination to avoid Conservative alignment with the Radicals and Repealers simply to embarrass the government. This represented a continuation of the ‘constructive opposition’ pursued in 1833-4 enabling acceptable reforms to be carried through while helping the Whigs resist unwelcome pressure from their own allies. The Whig party manager, Edward Ellice noted in 1836 that Peel ‘was as anxious as the most selfish adherent of the Treasury to keep the Gov’t in office’. In early 1837, the government was under pressure from radical motions on the secret ballot, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, repeal of the Septennial Act and the removal of bishops from the House of Lords and on each occasion the Whigs depended on Conservative support to defeat the Radicals.
The sessions of 1836 and early 1837 were encouraging ones for Peel and his friends. Conservative feeling in the country was gaining in strength, helped undoubtedly by the positive state of trade and agriculture. The relationship between the Whigs and their allies was often fraught and the cohesion of the opposition improving with the recruitment of Stanley and his associates brining Conservative numbers in the Commons almost up to 300. Peel and especially Wellington appear to have persuaded the more fanatical Conservative peers from launching a suicidal attack on the government. Even some Whigs recognised that Peel was holding back and waiting for Whig support to drain away before delivering the killer blow. Modern research had vindicated Peel’s cautious strategy and shows just how successful he was in enticing moderate Whig MPs into Conservative ranks. Between 1833 and 1837, at least 31 MPs who had supported the Reform Act joined the Conservatives and only about a dozen of these were associated with Lord Stanley. Another seventeen MPs crossed the floor during the parliament of 1837-1841. Peel would have been entitled to feel that this movement of MPs from Whig to Conservative justified the effectiveness of his policy of refraining from violent opposition to the government.
Ending support for the Whigs 1837-1841
The death of William IV in June 1837 transformed the political situation. The ensuing general election brought further Conservative gains so that the opposition amounted to around 371 MPs (out of 658). However, the Whigs’ increasingly precarious parliamentary situation was compensated by the unswerving support of the new monarch. Unlike her uncle, who detested his ministers, Victorian held strong pro-Whiggish views and until 1841 she displayed a strong personal attachment to Lord Melbourne that the Whigs were able to exploit. This made Peel’s position as leader of the opposition extremely awkward. It was now difficult to square Conservative principles with opposition methods now that it was clear that the queen had no desire to be rescued from her Whig ministers. At the beginning of the 1838 session of parliament, the Conservatives seem further than ever from removing the government.
It was the Canadian rebellion in late 1837 and questions about the government’s handling of the affair that posed a real problem for Peel. Peel and Wellington were instinctively disposed to support the emergency measures including the suspension of the Canadian constitution. However, there were warnings from Conservative party managers that unless some hostile action was taken by the opposition front-bench, many back-benchers were likely to support a radical motion of censure. Peel still maintained that direct opposition attacks on the government were counter-productive but recognised that something had to be done to preserve opposition unity. His solution was to support an amendment to the radical censure motion while pledging support for measures necessary to suppress the rebellion. This was tactically sound since it enabled him to attack the Whigs for allowing the rebellion to occur in the first place much to the satisfaction of his own supporters while ensuring that the government was sure to survive. The Whigs consequently won by twenty-nine votes.
Peel now found himself in an uncomfortable position. Before 1839, he refused to countenance another outright attack on the Whigs. He also rejected the advice of his chief whip that he should meet his MPs at the beginning of each session to explain the current situation to them. The problem of Peel’s uncommunicative attitudes with his MPs became apparent in March 1839 when 65 Conservative back-benchers, working in conjunction with Ultra peers, staged a rebellion over the government’s Irish Municipal Corporations Bill. They were already angry because Peel backed the Whigs’ Irish Tithes and Irish Poor Law Bills in the previous session. This appears to have stung Peel into adopting more aggressive action. In April, he defended the House of Lords after it had passed a motion of censure over Whig Irish policy and in May he condemned the Whigs’ handling of the crisis in Jamaica where the constitution had been suspended, despite his approval of an almost identical action by the Whigs over Canada. Peel’s inconsistency can only be explained by his need to appease his own supporters. However, his expectation was that the government would not be defeated and it did survive by five votes. In the event, the narrowness of the Whig victory provided the Whigs with an excuse for submitting their resignations.
The ‘Bedchamber crisis’ May 1839
On 8th May, Victoria, having been advised by Wellington that the new Prime Minister should be in the House of Commons summoned Peel. At his audience at Buckingham Palace, Victoria immediately made it clear that she regretted the loss of her Whig ministers, expressed her reluctance to grant Peel the dissolution of parliament and made it clear that she must not be asked to end all communication with Lord Melbourne. Though Peel replied that he was willing to do everything in its power to meet the Queen’s wishes, he went on to indicate that it was essential for him to have some mark of the Queen’s confidence in the form of some changes to the Royal Household. Many of the most senior positions were held by female relatives of the outgoing Whig ministers.
Whether this stipulation was intended by Peel as a test of the Queen’s commitment, the following day when he returned to her with his list of proposed ministerial appointments, he learned of the Queen’s refusal to make any changes to the personnel of her Household. Under these circumstances, Peel had little choice but to decline the commission. To the Queen’s delight, Melbourne agreed to resume his premiership. There are several different views of why Peel refused to take office.
A cynical view could argue that Peel did not consider that this was the right time to take over from the Whigs and deliberately raised the issues of the Household in the expectation that it would lead to a breakdown in negotiations. He had never intended the Whigs to resign on the Jamaica issue. It is important to recognise that the Crown was still a potentially negative and obstructive force in British politics. This made it a legitimate concern for Peel that the Queen should not be surrounded at Court by Whig ladies. If Peel had formed a government in 1839, it would have been a minority one with no guarantee of a dissolution of parliament to bolster his support through a general election. In addition, he risked being undermined by the hostile influence of the Ladies of the Bedchamber, reinforcing the Queen’s prejudice against the Conservatives. The end result might well have been humiliation for Peel and the speedy return of the Whigs. A third view suggests that since Peel only asked for some changes to her Household, it seems unlikely that he expected his requests to be rejected in such an uncompromising way. In this scenario, Peel may well have made a genuine effort to form a government and that the conditions he laid down were perfectly reasonable given the Queen’s obvious Whig sympathies. Though Peel may have been relieved when events enabled him to abandon his project, but he must have been concerned that relations between the Crown and the Conservatives were so frosty.
From Bedchamber to Downing Street 1839-1841
The Conservative party demonstrated their capacity for highly disciplined parliamentary action from late 1838. Conservative MPs were increasingly frustrated by Peel’s unwillingness to take office and his opposition to any systematic warfare against the Whigs. His reaction to these complaints betrayed his somewhat contemptuous view of the extent of most Conservative MPs’ political commitment and can be seen in his response to an article in the Quarterly Review: ‘People very much mistake the constitution of the Conservative party who suppose that it will be held together under such a system of worrying and vexatious tactics…such a system does not very well consort with Conservative principles…After you had deducted the idle, the shuffling, the diners-out, the country gentlemen with country occupations, and above all the moderate and quiet men disliking the principle of a factious Opposition, we should find the Conservative ranks pretty well thinned…’
Whatever Peel’s views, he had little choice but to offer a more active and belligerent leadership unless he wanted to see the Conservative party becoming fatally demoralised. In this instance, it was a political rather than a principled response that was essential. The result was a motion of no confidence in the government with an uncharacteristically feeble performance by Peel who seemed to be more concerned with defending himself than attacking the Whigs. The government survived by a fairly comfortable margin of twenty-one votes. The matter did not end there and for the remainder of the 1840 session of parliament, there were continuing tensions within the Conservative opposition. There was renewed strain between Peel and Wellington who never had much in common. While Peel was inclined to offer support over the Irish Municipal Corporations and Canada Bills, Wellington, along with many other peers, wished to reject both. Although Peel made some concessions to Wellington over the Canada Bill, no concession was forthcoming on the Municipal Corporations Bill and Peel was powerless to prevent the Lords emasculating the legislation with amendments. It took considerable diplomatic work, especially by Sir James Graham in the 1840 autumn recess to restore relations between Peel and Wellington.
It was the Whig government in 1841 that allowed the Conservatives to unite with their proposals to deal with the growing budgetary deficit caused by declining revenue from indirect taxes at a time of acute economic depression. The Whigs proposed to cut import duties on timber and on foreign, but not colonial sugar thinking that lower tariffs might stimulate the volume of trade and so increase the tax yield to the Exchequer. They also announced a separate measure, the introduction of a fixed duty of 8s per quarter on wheat in place of the 1828 sliding scale.
The opposition seized on the sugar duties as offering the best target for attack. Many Whig back-benchers were hostile to a plan to benefit foreign sugar producers, many of whom used slave labour, at the expense of colonial growers who since 1838 had not. In addition, some Whig agriculturalists were alarmed by the Corn Law scheme and would be tempted to use the sugar issue to join forces with the opposition. On 18th May 1841, the Whig government suffered a devastating defeat by 371 to 281: 15 Whigs voted with the Conservatives and another eighteen abstained. This was followed up by a vote of no confidence and on 2nd June this was carried by 302 to 301 votes. The Whigs then announced that parliament would be dissolved.
It is difficult to see the defeat of the Whigs followed by the Conservative victory in the 1841 election as the outcome of an increasingly well-orchestrated Conservative opposition to the government since 1835. The Conservatives were beset by internal difficulties up to and including the 1840 session of parliament and Peel had serious problems with the very concept of Conservative opposition to ministers of the Crown who had the monarch’s confidence and support.
In May and June 1841, Peel found that his leadership was unavoidably identified with the issues that were fundamental to his more unreconstructed back-benchers. It was the determination to uphold the Corn Law that underpinned the Conservative attack on the Whig government, even though it was not the direct issue at stake in the crucial divisions in May and June. It was Protectionism not Peel’s notion of ‘constructive opposition’ that provided the unifying cause for Conservatives. However, in the excitement and enthusiasm of 1841, the fundamental differences of opinion between Peel and the majority of his party were concealed, at least temporarily. It does not follow that the Conservative victory at the polls should be interpreted as an overwhelming personal endorsement of Peel and the principles he had laid down at Tamworth.