It is fair to say that in his actions and policies, Peel was the one man most responsible for the Tory party’s victory at the 1841 election. Only a man of his skill and ability could have lifted the party out of its troubled situation created in the years after Liverpool’s departure from government. Potentially major differences within the party had only been suppressed by Liverpool’s line of moderation that addressed liberal and reactionary demands, while leaving controversial topics like Ireland and parliamentary reform open.
His successors did not follow his ideology, and lost the party the support and status that Liverpool had so carefully attained. George Canning succeeded Liverpool as Tory Prime Minister in 1827, yet his pro-Ireland stance immediately alienated the reactionary ranks of the Tories from his support base, causing him to resign. Viscount Goodrich was an incompetent and weak prime minister, who buckled under the strain of leadership and resigned almost at once.
The Duke of Wellington, although supported by the Ultra-Tories was alienating the party from the public by dismissing the credibility of parliamentary reform, and the Tory party was defeated by the Whigs in the general election 175 Tory seats to 441 Whig seats. Here we see the Conservatives at their lowest point. Peel was the only credible candidate for the Tory leadership, and began his long-term campaign to restore the fortunes of the Conservative party.
Peel first entered the top levels of the Tory party as the Home Secretary of Liverpool’s government in 1822 where he did sterling work for the party and for the people, notably in the area of penal reform. He then played a major part in supporting Wellington’s floundering leadership for as long as possible. Early in opposition, King William IV offered him the premiership in return for suppressing the demand for parliamentary reform that resided both in and out of parliament.
Peel, however, refused, not wanting to enter government under obligation or as a minority. This shows long-term planning on Peel’s part and his disinterest in the internal squabbles of government. His first action was to embark on blocking the approaching reform bill backed by Grey’s new Whig government. He favoured the established constitution and the current system of parliament, which gave the executive a firm support base from the landed gentry.
As articulate and convincing as his speeches were however, reform was inevitable and the Reform Act was passed in 1832 by Grey’s government. Thinking practically, Peel (unlike the rest of his party) recognised that reform was there to stay, and sought to make his judgement on the evidence of its effect rather than its premise. After the reform bill, Peel realised the need to consolidate the party and strengthen its electoral support, instead of trying to score petty victories against the Whigs in the Commons.
As it was, the party still lacked cohesion, with the Ultra-Tories criticising Peel for his acceptance of the reform bill, and only around 150 Tory MPs were in parliament. Peel realised that a whole new avenue of middle class support had been opened up by the reform, which he was quick to appeal to. In his 1834 Tamworth Manifesto, Peel stated that he would undertake to govern with the new electorate in mind as long as extra-parliamentary agitation contained itself and the role and influence of the executive was recognised and sustained.
He also revealed his progressive style of Toryism, which would come to be known as Conservatism. He preached “sense, firmness and moderation”, which was the basis of a parliamentary Opposition that would win back government. After William IV dismissed the Whig party in late 1834, Peel entered his “Hundred Days” term. Although little was achieved in terms of legislation, it showed the progress made by the Tory party in reclaiming much of their previous status. It also showed the Tory party had backed a winner in the form of Peel.
He performed with skill, competency and confidence as the Prime Minister for his short period of office. He had to step down, however, as the Whigs, Radicals and Irish formed the Lichfield House Compact in March 1835, uniting the Opposition under one banner. With such an overwhelming minority in government, Peel chose to resign from office, and so Melbourne was re-appointed as premier in 8th April 1835. However, this did not dishearten the Tory party, and even the grumbling Ultras relented to Peel’s leadership.
It was becoming clear that Peel would soon re-enter government as the Prime Minister once a solid Tory majority had been formed. It was becoming apparent around this time that the influence of the Whigs was on the decline. The radicals and Irish dissenters were pushing the Whig party down paths that the majority of the electorate wanted closed. Lord John Russell’s Irish Tithe Bill among others turned devout Anglicans and deep-rooted Establishment supporters to the Tory party, where Peel still prized the relationship between the Anglican Church and the State.
The King was starting to tire of the Whigs, and he and all the influence he commanded were now behind Peel. The Lords also turned to Peel, disdainful of the current spate of Whig reform that was moving away from agricultural protectionism that they saw as their constitutional birthright. Lord Russel and Lord Melbourne had actually gone so far as to try to repeal the Corn Laws completely. However, their bill was beaten by 36 votes in the Commons, which spurred on their departure from government.
The situation was perfect for Peel, as he could concentrate on his party and his supporters while the Whigs were tearing themselves and their support apart, exemplified by Lord Graham and Lord Stanley’s departure from Melbourne’s government. By the time his “Hundred Days” term was over, there were 290 Tory MPs in parliament, renewing his influence in the counties and making the Tory party the largest single party in the Commons. During the 1837 elections the Tory party gained thirteen more seats, giving the Whig government a majority of only 20 seats.
The Conservatives had cornered the Anglican electorate through the Whig’s activities in Ireland that were uniformly disliked in England, and their support of Daniel O’Connell was a painfully physical symbol of Irish influence in the Whig party for all the world to see. Problems were compounded for Melbourne’s government by the rise of Chartism in the spring of 1839. The middle classes rallied the working class masses against the incompetent government. The working class were generally unhappy with the current economic downturn and the government’s huge budget deficit amassed through the Whig’s incompetent management of the economy.
Melbourne even tried to resign again in May 1839, but was forced to withdraw his resignation due to the ‘Bedchamber Crisis’. When it came to the election, the Tories took an easy victory, winning 302 seats while the Opposition gained 196. Peel had led a solid and secure Tory party to victory from the pit of conflict and discord that they had dug themselves into following Liverpool’s years in office. He had given the party form and focus, appealing to the traditional Tory supporters united by an Anglican church under threat from Ireland and a Corn Law under threat from radicals.
He also tried to widen the scope of party support with his appeals to the middle class in the Tamworth Manifesto. Yet it seemed that it was the failings of the Whig party that really gave the Tory party the country. The Whigs had alienated almost all prominent sectors of support from their ranks. Their dealings with Ireland gave them added support in Ireland, yet turned away many devout Anglican voters. The questioning of the Corn Laws gave everyone earning from domestic agriculture a reason to choose Peel over the Whigs.
Their mishandling of the economy and the failings of the 1832 Whig Reform Act rallied the working classes and their middle class leaders against them through Chartism. The huge budget deficit humiliated Melbourne to the extent that few of the electorate could see anything worth voting for in him. For all Peel made of the middle class vote, historians such as Paul Adelman have pointed out that votes came from the traditional areas of Southern England and Wales rather than the industrial North, suggesting a lack of enthusiasm or confidence from the majority of the middle class industrialists.
Peel did offer a welcome alternative to the incompetency of the Whigs, but the majority of votes were from the traditional Tory bastions such as supporters of the Establishment, the Monarchy, the Church and the landed gentry, that almost always voted ambiguously for the Tory party. Votes from new areas were on the whole fuelled by a general dislike of the stale Whig party and their Irish and radical associations, rather than what Peel and his modern breed of Conservatism stood for.