The crisis of Conservatism began with the dispute over the Maynooth grant in 1845 and ended with the repeal of the Corns Laws in 1846 followed by the end of the Peel government. It is tempting to see the division of the Conservative party in 1846 as inevitable and the disagreements between Peel and his back-bench MPs from 1842 as steps towards the final confrontation. There were certainly difficulties between Peel and his MPs but this did not make division inevitable. Political parties have survived even when dogged by disagreement. What made the divisions of 1845-1846 different was that they concerned the issue of the Corn Laws.
Relations between Peel and his backbenchers had been difficult from the early days of his ministry. It was not simply a matter of differences on policy. Many Conservative MPs regarded Peel as insensitive to their interests and he made little attempt to court backbench opinion. He unadvisedly took the loyalty of Conservatives in Parliament for granted and was irritated when this was withheld. Peel managed his government but he made little effort to manage his party. The 1842 budget led to considerable criticism. Poor law and factory reform also resulted in back bench discontent. Over fifty Conservatives, largely representing northern seats opposed the extension of the poor law and supported the reduction of the working day to ten hours. These rebellions did not threaten Peel’s position in the early years of his government but the divisions within the party they represented were merely papered over. It was a normal and regular feature of parliamentary politics for MPs to vote against their leaders on issue that were not considered to be of major importance. This was not indicative of a general desire to bring Peel’s government down or represented a repudiation of Peel’s leadership.
In 1844 divisions widened further. Ninety-five Tories voted for Ashley’s amendment to the Factory Bill in March. In June, sixty-one Tories supported an amendment to the government proposal to reduce the duty on foreign slave-grown sugar by almost half while leaving sugar from the West Indies unaltered. Both amendments were carried and though Peel had little difficulty in reversing them his approach caused considerable annoyance. Peel believed that government defeats reduced his authority but was not prepared to reach an accommodation with the dissident MPs. He threatened to resign if they refused to support him. Reluctantly, but also because there was no alternative to Peel, they fell into line. However, on the Maynooth grant in 1845, 149 Conservatives voted against the proposal and 148 in favour. Party morale was at a low level by mid-1845 and party unity was showing signs of terminal strain. On Maynooth and then the Corn Laws, Peel pushed his party too far.
When did Peel decide to repeal the Corn Laws?
It seems likely that Peel seized on the opportunity provided by the potato famine to implement free trade policies on which he had already made up his mind. The critical question is at what point did he become converted to the ideas put forward by the middle class radicals of the Anti-Corn Law League? It is not possible to provide a definitive answer but Boyd Hilton may be right that Peel had accepted the intellectual arguments in favour of free trade in the 1820s long before the League came into existence and that by 1841 he recognised it was ‘theoretically correct’ that the Corn Laws would eventually have to be repealed. The moves to free trade in the 1842 and especially the 1845 budgets made the continuance of the Corn Laws increasingly untenable. Yet Peel did not announce his conversion to repeal until the end of 1845. Why?
First, he may have accepted the need for repeal but he was the leader of a Protectionist party. He needed time to persuade his supporters of the arguments for repeal. The Irish potato famine did not give him that time. It was the occasion rather than the cause of repeal that Peel would probably have preferred to put to the electorate in 1847 or 1848. Secondly, Peel disapproved of extra-parliamentary pressure and viewed the Anti-Corn Law League with considerable suspicion. The success of the League, especially between 1841 and 1844, may have persuaded Peel not to move quickly to repeal. He saw it as his duty to act in the national interest and did not want to be accused of acting under pressure. The activities of the League threatened to divide propertied interests and Peel saw that social stability was essential if there was to be economic growth. Giving in to the League was not an acceptable political option. Peel was also critical of the League’s propaganda especially its use of the language of class warfare. The strident, anti-aristocratic attacks by the League on landowners and the creation of a Protectionist Anti-League raised the spectre of commercial and industrial property being pitted against agricultural property. This, Peel believed, would significantly weaken the forces of property against those agitating for democratic rights.
Perhaps the nearest thing we have to evidence that Peel was nurturing a plan for repeal before the Irish famine and that this crisis merely hastened the timetable for action is provided by Prince Albert’s account of a conversation with Peel on Christmas Day 1845. Though this cannot be taken as conclusive proof of Peel’s intentions because he was speaking to the Prince shortly after the decision to proceed with the Corn Law, it is probably a good indication of what he had in mind. According to Peel’s original plan, the Conservative party was going to be persuaded to drop its commitment to agricultural protection before the general election due in 1847 or 1848, with repeal to follow sometime during the next parliament, probably in the early 1850s. Peel’s conversation with Prince Albert suggests that his decision was motivated less by the crisis in Ireland but by fears of how the crisis might be exploited by the radical supporters of repeal in Britain.
Certainly, in 1844-1845, the campaign of the Anti-Corn Law League entered a new and politically more threatening phase. Urban supporters of free trade were encouraged to purchase freehold properties in county constituencies so as to qualify themselves for the vote in parliamentary elections. This deliberate manufacturing of voters was concentrated in South Lancashire, North Cheshire, the West Riding of Yorkshire and Middlesex but by November 1845 there was a broader plan for challenging landed MPs in their county strongholds across the country. At the same time, the League responded to the famine in Ireland by demanding immediate repeal, a move Peel feared would succeed in persuading the British public that protection was somehow responsible for Ireland’s plight. This claim may be illogical and dishonest but it might, if it gained credence in people’s minds risk depicting the government as callous and defending the interests of landowners while Ireland starved. Peel was anxious to prevent radicals from using the current crisis to launch a class-based attack on landowners by promoting a wider settlement of the free trade issue that would appeal to the whole nation.
Peel may have not been prepared to repeal the Corn Laws if this could be seen as surrendering to external pressure but, by 1845, there were powerful practical arguments that repeal was in the national interest. The Corn Laws were designed to protect farmers against the corn surpluses, and hence cheap imports, of European producers. However, by the mid-1840s there was a widespread shortage of corn in Europe. Peel reasoned that British farmers had nothing to fear from repeal because there were no surpluses to flood the British market. The nation would benefit, the widespread criticism of the aristocracy would be removed and the landowning classes were unlikely to suffer. This was too sophisticated for the Protectionists. Their case can be seen, in retrospect, as narrow but contemporaries did not recognise this. For small landowners and tenant farmers, the most vocal supporters of protection, repeal meant ruin. Peel’s argument that free trade would offer new opportunities for efficient farmers made little impact.
Peel said later that ‘in the interval between the passing of the Corn Bill in 1842, and the close of the Session of 1845’ the opinions he had ‘previously entertained on the subject of protection to agriculture had undergone a great change’, and that ‘many concurring proofs’ had demonstrated to him that ‘the wages of labour do not vary [he meant fall] with the price of corn’. In 1844, he found himself unable to answer the arguments used by Cobden, and in 1845 he agreed with Graham, who said that, following the failure of the potato, ‘the Anti-Corn Law pressure’ would become ‘the most formidable movement in modern times’.
 The connection between Maynooth and repeal are clear. Of the 153 Conservative MPs who voted against the government at some stage in 1845, 133 voted against repeal and only twenty supported Peel.