'The Dispatch of Business'
Cartoon from Fun, 9 June 1866, NS, 3, p. 129
N. 2706 d. 13
The death of Palmerston in October 1865 cleared the way for the Liberal agenda to return to electoral reform. Russell's proposals of 1860 had met with widespread apathy, initiating a truce against reform between the party's Whig and Radical factions. Five years on the issue remained little more an afterthought when Palmerston was elected for a third term. But the succession of Russell - to whom reform remained a long-standing conviction, revived Radical hopes that the party could be led away from the latent anti-reformism of its right. Russell was acutely aware that the success of his second ministry depended upon maintaining party unity. To this end he hoped to delay the question by setting up a Commission of Inquiry. His attempts to woo the Palmerstonians proved unsuccessful however. Many leading Whigs refused to join his government, leaving Russell obliged to turn to the Radicals and press ahead with Gladstone in drafting a new Bill. The proposals put forward fell well short of Radical demands by omitting household suffrage, and advocating an expansion of the franchise less than that of 1860. Furthermore, the £7 rental qualification for the boroughs served to alienate Whig elements of the Cabinet since it failed to restrict the extension to the Liberal-inclined 'respectable' working classes.
The prospect of a Bill that would expand the Liberal's electoral base horrified leading Tories. Nonetheless, Derby and Disraeli played a waiting game. Disraeli was mindful that a legislative defeat could turn the issue to Conservative advantage - 'the truce of parties is over. I foresee tempestuous times, and great vicissitudes in public life' (Paul Smith, Disraeli: A brief life (New York, 1996; Cambridge, 1999), p. 136). As hostilities resumed within the Liberal ranks, he was not slow to aggravate the divisions. Not only did he view the situation as a chance to topple the government, it afforded Disraeli the opportunity to cement his own fragile position within the party. Behind the scenes Disraeli skilfully courted the government rebels, labelled by John Bright (1811-1889) the 'Adullamite Cave'. By pledging Conservative support he manoeuvred their leaders Robert Lowe and Lord Elcho into leading the opposition from the Liberal backbenches. Through a series of technical amendments a steady stream of Whig MPs joined the 'Cave' in voting against their own front bench. Gladstone remained a formidable force at the despatch box but the rebel alliance (and Disraeli) held the momentum. With the Bill's legitimacy undermined, the Liberal majority of seventy dwindled to just five before collapsing to a deficit of eleven votes.
This cartoon taken from the comic periodical Fun - at the height of the debate - displays the frustration felt within Liberal circles over Disraeli's tactics, and Gladstone's inability to counter them. A self-satisfied Disraeli in tatty old clothes - a common graphic symbol of the Jewish person, is depicted hitching a ride on the tail of Gladstone's 'reform' mule - an increasingly impotent Liberal Party's beast of burden. Humiliated, Gladstone throws Disraeli an irritated glance, as a diminutive dishevelled figure - the English Working man - clings to his opponent. On 26 June the aging Russell resigned. With the Liberals dispatched from office, the business of reform was back in Conservative hands.
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