ow did the Conservative Party recover so well after the passing of the Reform Act in 1832 as to win the general election of 1841? From 1832 onwards the Whigs' popularity as a governing party was in serious decline for various reasons. They were running out of ideas by 1835; there was increasing economic depression developing; defections to the other side of the House occurred; the Whig ministries witnessed the rise of public pressure groups; the Whigs left behind a £ 37 1/2 million budget deficit and were viewed as being cynical and devious after the Litchfield House Compact. In comparison, Conservative Party strength showed a dramatic increase after the passing of the Reform Act due to party organisation under the Carlton Club and Registration Societies, the strength of Peel as a politician and the Conservatives' willingness not to use their power and influence in the House of Lords unconstitutionally.
A major factor in the Tory Party's strength after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act was in fact the Act itself which united the party against further reform. After the resignation of the Whigs over reform, Peel refused to serve in a Tory Party that pledged reform because he did not see the need for any further reform. The key event in the formation of Peel's Conservatism was the 1832 Reform Act. However, Peel rapidly came to accept parliamentary reform as a fait accompli and in doing so distanced himself from the Ultras. At the same time he recognised the need for a strong government to conserve the fundamental institutions of Britain was imperative, given the strength of Radicalism. As he stated in 1833
The best position the government could assume would be that of moderation between opposite extremes of Ultra-Toryism and Radicalism
Party organisation was another reason for the Tories' success in the 1841 election. In 1832 the Carlton Club was set up under Sir Francis Bonham as the Conservative Party headquarters, which was the nerve centre of information. However, the effectiveness of the club was restricted by the dislike of centralisation and lack of funds. Also, other Conservative associations were founded throughout the constituencies which dealt with registration and canvassing, and sometimes selected and financed candidates. Solicitors were the backbone of constituency organisations, especially for registration.
Peel was the major player in the Conservative Party's recovery. Peel led the Tory Party as a non-factional opposition which supported modest and judicious reform, as laid down in the 1834 Tamworth Manifesto. Peel made the Conservative Party coherent and united and he is seen by Gash as the "founder of modern Conservatism." Peel's strength can be seen in the way he successfully constructed a modern Conservative Party from the Tory fragments shattered by the passing of the great Reform Act. Peel took up the position of Prime Minister in 1834, although he had no majority, out of a sense of duty. He saw himself as the King's Minister. Shortly after becoming PM for the first time, he wrote
I do not hesitate to say that I feel that I can do more than any man can who means his reforms to work practically and who respects and wishes to preserve the British constitution.
The incomparable achievement of forming a strong party based on conservative principles brought its reward when Peel was in a clear majority at the 1841 election. As PM, Peel dominated his cabinet and seemed to dominate his party; his masterly performance during his 1841-46 ministry has rarely been equalled. Disraeli described Peel as the greatest parliamentarian that ever lived, though the remark was not meant as a compliment.
The conservatives never used their power in the House of Lords unconstitutionally to veto Whig legislation and to a great extent supported some Whig legislation. This is another reason for their recovery. As Peel stated in 1832: "I have no desire to replace the Honourable Gentlemen opposite." The Conservatives consequently supported the 1833 Coercion Bill for Ireland, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act. Peel used the Conservative majority in the House of Lords as a brake on Whig legislation, but had to rely on Wellington to keep the Lords in line. Peel refused to go for tactical victories to overthrow the Whigs, because that would display the Conservatives' factionalism and lack of conviction to their own principles.
In addition, the foundations of the Conservative recovery began with the movement of reformers across the floor of the House of Commons to the Conservative Party. MPs such as Sir James Graham and Lord Stanley crossed the floor, taking their supporters with them, thus giving the Conservatives added strength. In contrast to such success, the Whigs were clinging on to power on the strength of their own reputation and after 1837, that of the young queen. By 1835 the Whigs were out of steam. They had done everything they set out to do: granted parliamentary reform under the 1832 Reform Act; abolished slavery and passed a measure of factory reform in 1833; changed the costly system of poor relief with the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act; and reformed local government with the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act. As Melbourne reflected,
I am for holding the ground already taken, but not for occupying new ground rashly.
Melbourne was also not spending his time on the duties of a PM and was more interested in "tutoring" Queen Victoria.
Another reason for the Whigs' loss of popularity was the economic depression which developed into the Hungry Forties (1837-42). The electorate held the Whigs responsible for the depression, as they had little understanding of economic philosophy and had no positive programme of social and economic reform. The Whigs also became increasingly unpopular with party members and defections occurred.
1835 onwards marked the rise of public pressure groups. In 1838 Cobden and Bright organised the nation-wide organisation led by the manufactures, the Anti-Corn-Law League, campaigning for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Two years later the working class began to crusade for a political Utopia under Chartism. In addition an Anti-Poor Law campaign led by Tory radicals was in full swing throughout the north of England. Such agitation created a revolutionary atmosphere in the country which the Whigs could not handle and consequently were seen as being weak as they did not deal harshly with the Chartists.
The Whigs also created a government debt of £ 37 1/2 million, which made them even more unpopular with the electorate. The Whigs' only attempt at economic reform, the setting up of a Select Committee on import duties, was a disaster. The Whigs obviously could not "handle the books." The Whigs also managed to disillusion middle-class supporters over factory reform; the Poor Law Amendment Act lost the Whigs their middle-class support in the industrial towns.
The Whigs were viewed as cynical and devious after the Litchfield House Compact. Since issuing the Tamworth Manifesto, Peel strengthened his position as Prime Minister so much so that the Whigs had to resort to a pact with Ireland - the Litchfield House Compact - to remove Peel from office. The Compact made it look as thought the Whigs were office-seeking at any price and they returned to power at the risk of opening up the Irish Question again. In fact the Whigs did nothing for Ireland. The Compact only caused trouble as the Irish were used for English political capital, setting the trend for nineteenth century politics.
In the light of the Whigs' incompetence, the Tory Party from 1832 became the strongest political force in the country. However, the Conservative Party was not as strong as it appeared. After 1841 the Tory Party's strength was starting to decline with friction within the party over Peel's free trade budgets of 1842, '43 and '45, the 1844 Factory Bill and ultimately the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Peel was consciously leading his followers where they did not want to go, pushing them into nineteenth century industrial England. The Conservative Party had apparent rather than real unity and it was only the fears of greater democracy, revolution and being out of office that held the party together. Peel's real offence was to disregard, almost without warning, principles which his supporters cherished and to which he himself professed unquestioning devotion, especially over the Corn Laws, which suggests that his Toryism was only skin-deep.
When Peel, himself a landowner, decided to move towards free trade in his budgets, ending with a total repeal of the Corn Laws, hardly anyone in the party, apart from the Peelites, trusted him, but they knew Peel was the only one who could gain them office and maintain them there. They believed they could control him and keep the party stable. When they discovered they could not, the party collapsed.
Last modified 11 October 2002