Politics without Party
The Corn Law crisis of 1846 signalled a deep rift within the Tory party and a jostling for leadership among the Whigs. At the centre of this breakdown of ideological unity and party discipline was Palmerston. He had already captured the public’s attention with his flamboyant foreign policy, independent mindedness and outspoken defence of British interests. By mid-century, it was obvious that he would play a central role as political parties struggled through the 1847 parliamentary elections, with neither the Whigs nor Tories enjoying working majorities in the House of Commons. The Tory numbers rose to 306 after the 1852 elections, but still fell short of a majority.1 A sign of Palmerston’s tactical influence was seen in the growing rivalry between himself and Lord John Russell for liberal opinion in Parliament and the country. Since becoming Prime Minister in 1846, Russell had been defending his Foreign Secretary from those who sought his dismissal, including the Queen and his detractors in the Cabinet. But he could do little else, knowing that without the popular Palmerston the ministry would fall. The Whigs had owed their political life to the split in the Tory opposition and to support from radicals and Irish nationalists. Russell, as leader of the Whigs, struggled to claim the leadership of this liberal phalanx, but it was Palmerston who had already won their hearts. Although the vote of confidence in the Don Pacifico affair had sustained the Whigs in office temporarily, there was no mistake that this was a victory for Palmerston and not for Russell’s Cabinet. Nor could a victory be found in Palmerston’s dismissal in December 1851, since it prefigured within weeks Russell’s own end at the hands of Palmerston’s ‘tit-for-tat’ motion defeating the Whigs’ Militia Bill.
KeywordsPrime Minister Foreign Policy Watchful Waiting Liberal Party East India Company
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