Monday, 20 October 2008

Why did the Conservatives become more electable?

Between 1835 and 1841 several things helped the Conservative Party to become more electable.

Improvements in electoral management

Improvements had certainly been made to the Conservatives’ organisational machine though it is difficult to asses its precise impact on the revival of the party’s electoral fortunes. Party organisation probably played an invaluable but subsidiary role enabling the Conservatives to capitalise on the shift of public opinion away from the Whigs after 1832. Peel’s direct involvement was minimal and the initiative in the 1830s came from men with a previous track-record in party management. Joseph Planta, William Holmes and Charles Arbuthnot formed the nucleus of the so-called ‘Charles Street Gang’, named after the address of the office they had established at the end of 1830, from which whips’ notes were sent out to MPs and attempts made to influence the press. The Charles Street Gang was instrumental in founding the Carlton Club in 1832, which soon became the party’s headquarters.

Shortly after the 1835 election, Francis Bonham persuaded Peel that a committee was needed on a permanent basis and became, in practice, the party’s first full-time election agent. Peel continued to improve the organisation of the party and refine its policies. The permanent committee was chaired by Granville Somerset with the aim of co-ordinating the party’s electoral affairs. The functions of the committee were confined, in practice, mainly to gathering information from the various localities, for the guidance of national leaders, suggesting suitable candidates for constituencies and providing modest subsidies to deserving candidates from a small, secret election fund. There were limits to what Bonham could do since interference in constituency affairs would be deeply resented by local landowners and activists accustomed to financing and controlling their own local affairs.

Peel recognised that party politics would dominate Parliament and frequently met with Bonham and his whips to work out clear political strategies though he rarely communicated this to his supporters in the Commons. He appointed able chief whips such as Sir George Clark in 1835 and Sir Thomas Freemantle in 1837. The result of this work could be seen in the general election following William IV’s death in 1837. The Conservatives gained thirteen seats and reduced the Whig’s majority to just over 30

The development of registration

Developments in party organisation at local level counted for much more than the tentative efforts of the central election committee. The impetus for change came from the requirement of the 1832 Act that a register of electors must be compiled in each constituency and updated annually. In many of the boroughs and also in a few counties, local Conservatives formed Registration Associations employing a local solicitor to ensure that the names of Conservative supporters were placed on the electoral register while challenging the eligibility of known opponents. Peel recognised the value of registration work at local level and of its long-term implications for the conduct of politics and government at the centre. Peel’s attitude to registration is revealed in a letter to Charles Arbuthnot in November 1839[1]

‘The registration will govern the disposal of offices and determine the policy of party attacks; and the power of this new element will go on increasing, as its secret strength becomes better known, and is more fully developed. We shall soon have, I have no doubts, a regular systematic organisation of it…’

‘Crossing the floor’

Peel’s political skills meant that moderate Whigs such as Sir James Graham and Stanley and their supporters, who had left the Whig government in 1834-5, could be drawn into political alliance. During the period 1835-40, nearly 60 Whigs ‘crossed the floor’ and joined the Conservatives. This significantly strengthened Peel’s front bench with Stanley, Gladstone and Graham as a strong debating team undermining the credibility of the Whig government.

Peel’s reputation

Peel’s reputation as a responsible opposition leader was a valuable political asset for his party, providing reassurance to moderate public opinion that the Conservatives could be safely trusted with the governance of the country. Yet the party that Peel built up in opposition was scarcely a new entity, despite the widespread use of the term ‘Conservative, as a resurrection of the ‘Tory party’ of professional administrators and country gentlemen that had been evolving under Lord Liverpool in the early and mid-1820s. It is also important not to exaggerate Peel’s role in encouraging the growth of party organisation during the 1830s. In fact, he was distinctly uncomfortable with the implications for the ways politics was conducted, of relying on electoral machinery to assist him into office.

Electoral growth

In the 1835 and 1837 general elections the Conservatives improved their position considerably. They increased their MPs by about a hundred in 1835 and added forty more two years later. By-election successes between 1837 and 1841 further improved their position. Between 1837 and 1841 they were only thirty votes short of the Whigs and their normal voting allies. After the 1837 election the Whigs were increasingly dependent on the support of Irish MPs (many of whom were Catholics) to remain in power. This worked to the advantage of the Conservative Party that could present itself as the party of Protestantism. In the 1841 election, the party won a total of 376 seats, giving them a comfortable overall majority of seventy.

In 1839, Melbourne was defeated by five votes over the Jamaican crisis[2] when the Whigs planned to suspend the Jamaican Assembly. The Whig government resigned and Queen Victoria reluctantly asked Peel to form the next government. Peel accepted the Queen’s invitation but only on condition that she sack those in her immediate circle of courtiers who were related to or associated with Whig politicians. She refused to sack some of her Whig ladies-in-waiting leading to the ‘Bedchamber crisis’[3] and she then asked Melbourne to form his third government in May 1839. In retrospect, Peel’s decision not to take power was a blessing in disguise. The Conservatives still did not command a majority in the House of Commons and the worsening economic crisis led to serious social unrest.

A disunited party?

The electoral tide may have been running in their favour but the Conservatives were not united either on principles or strategies.

For Peel, the major threat to his executive view of government during the 1830s came not from the Whigs but from the Radicals. They believed in extra-parliamentary pressure to achieve their aims and this was unacceptable to Peel. Defeating the Radicals often meant supporting the Whigs. On many issues, such as the poor law in 1834 and municipal reform the following year, Peel either actively supported the government or did not meddle. He sought to defeat the Whigs but was not prepared to do so at any cost: opposition remained constructive’. In particular he was not willing to ally with Radicals to bring the government down.

Many Tories believed that Peel should defeat the Whigs as soon as possible, if necessary with Radical votes. Peel’s approach during the ‘Bedchamber crisis’, when he refused in 1839 to take office because the young Victoria would not dismiss some of her ladies in waiting, seemed to some Tories to be arrogant. The House of Lords took a different line to Peel on some issues, especially on Ireland. Electoral victory had to wait until 1841.


[1] In the published edition of Peel’s correspondence, this is misdated to the year 1838. Its true date is significant since it was written after the ‘Bedchamber crisis’ and suggests that Peel had reluctantly come to the conclusion pressed on him by Sir James Graham and others that the hostility shown by the Queen to the opposition and her support for the Whigs meant that the only way the Conservatives could now obtain office was by removing the government by winning a general election and compelling the Queen to take them as ministers.

[2] The emancipation of slaves in 1833 had led to a worsening of the economic conditions for planters in Jamaica. The result was increased brutality against the former slaves to such an extent that the Jamaica constitution was suspended for five years.

[3] The Bedchamber issue was resolved in 1841 by the intervention of Queen Victoria’s new husband, Prince Albert.

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