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Why were the conservative party weak from 1846?

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Why were the Conservatives weak from 1846-66? Between the years 1846 and 1866, the Conservative party was only in government for a total of 26 months. This was as a result of a number of factors, including the split of the party in 1846 over the repeal of the Corn Laws, the refusal of the MPs who left (the Peelites) to return, the leadership and organisation of the party, the limited electoral appeal the party had, and the strength of opposition which the Conservatives faced. The first factor I shall be focusing on is the leadership and organisation of the Conservatives in this period. In the immediate aftermath of the 1846 split, the appointment of Lord George Bentinck (MP for King's Lynn and an archetypal backbencher) as leader illustrated the lack of quality within the party as Bentinck had not uttered a word in Parliament in his 18 years as an MP. Benjamin Disraeli, an excellent speaker with boundless energy, was not initially a popular leadership candidate due to his literary involvement, his colourful political career and the fact that he was born Jewish, but the party eventually had to force him to share the leadership in the Commons with a Committee of three. ...read more.


As the Whigs and the Peelites grew closer together, the chances of a Conservative/Peelite reunion lessened. Further, the Peelites were a modernist party, especially in the areas of free trade and religion and wanted to broaden their appeal. This was in direct contrast to the Conservative protectionists like Disraeli, who opposed change and defended their own interests. According to Terry Jenkins in his book 'Disraeli and Victorian Conservativism,' 'protectionism...remained the major obstacle to a Conservative-Peelite rapprochement in the early 1850s.' The clashes between the Peelites and the protectionists over foreign policy issues in the 1850s is proof that the tensions which caused the split of the Conservatives still existed. This refusal to return to the Conservatives gave their opponents a position of strength, and this strength of opposition is another factor which caused the Conservatives to be weak from 1846-66. The Whigs were strong in this period for three main reasons: the Peelites joining them, the strength of their leadership, and because in 1859, they (along with the Whigs and radicals) formed the moderate Liberal party. In the election of 1847, the Conservatives won 325 seats to the Whigs' 292 seats, but when one subtracts the Peelites' 91 seats from the Conservative figure and add it to the Whig total, the Whigs ended up with a 149-seat majority. ...read more.


In conclusion, it is clear that all the factors described had a part to play in the Conservative weakness from 1846-66. The weakness of the leadership as a result of the 1846 split meant the party was weakened, and the split meant that the Peelites were not going to return to the Conservatives. This in turn led to the strength of the Conservatives' opposition (the Whigs and later, the Liberals), and the lack of electoral appeal meant that the party just could not win the votes it needed to get into power. However, one factor underpins each of the other factors: the split of the party in 1846. The split caused the weakness in the party leadership (as all the talent in the party left), the refusal of the Peelites to return (as they did not want to be part of the Conservatives after the Corn Law disagreement in 1846), the strength of the opposition (as all the talent left in 1846 and went to the opposition), and the lack of electoral appeal (caused by a number of factors including the split). All the factors can be traced back to the split, so it is a very important point when considering why the Conservatives were weak in this period. 1 Terry Jenkins - 'Disraeli and Victorian Conservativism' 2 Stephen J. Lee - British Political History 1815-1914 ?? ?? ?? ?? ...read more.

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