The Salisbury Era 1881–1902
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Beaconsfield’s privately designated successor was Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne Cecil (1830–1903), third marquess of Salisbury. That statesman had indicated his willingness to place himself at the disposal of the party provided the feelings of Sir Stafford Northcote were respected. But there was no machinery for appointing or electing ‘the leader of the Conservative Party’ when that party was not in office, and it was only in the leadership of the Conservative peers that Salisbury succeeded Disraeli. Northcote, for all his ineffectiveness — he was ‘no more a match for Mr. Gladstone than a wooden three-decker would be for a Dreadnought’, Balfour recalled — and his chronic heart disease, was persistently ambitious. The fact that the Fourth Party was ‘thoroughly in Salisbury’s favour as opposed to the Goat’ (Churchill’s nickname for Northcote) was no asset to Salisbury. Sir Stafford could hardly be subordinated in an ostentatious way when he was being savaged by Churchill. Moreover, Salisbury, who had sat in the House of Commons as Lord Robert Cecil from 1853 to 1865 and thereafter as Viscount Cranborne, had gone — not willingly — to the Lords as long ago as April 1868. The Commons ex-ministers in 1881 pointed out that ‘it is in the House of Commons that the great battle will have to be fought, and there that the policy of the party will from time to time have to be announced and asserted’.
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