British Prime Ministers

British Prime Ministers

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British Prime Ministers
Robert Walpole1715-1742
William Pitt1783-1801, 1804-1806
Henry Addington1801-04
Lord Grenville1806-1807
Duke of Portland1807-1809
Spencer Perceval1809-1812
Lord Liverpool1812-1827
George Canning1827
Viscount Goderich1827-28
Duke of Wellington1828-1830
Earl Grey1830-1834
Lord Melbourne1834, 1835-1841
Sir Robert Peel1834-1835, 1841-1846
Lord John Russell1846-1852, 1865-1866
Earl of Derby1852, 1858-1859, 1866-1868
Earl of Aberdeen1852-1855
Lord Palmerston1855-1858, 1859-1865
Benjamin Disraeli1868, 1874-1880
William Gladstone1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894
Marquis of Salisbury1885-1886, 1886-1892, 1895-1902
Earl of Rosebery1894-1895
Arthur Balfour1902-1905
Henry Campbell-Bannerman1905-1908
Herbert Asquith1908-1916
David Lloyd George1916-1922
Andrew Bonar Law1922-1923
Stanley Baldwin1923-1924, 1924-1929, 1935-1937
James Ramsay MacDonald1924, 1929-1935
Neville Chamberlain1937-1940
Winston Churchill1940-1945, 1951-1955
Clement Attlee1945-1951
Anthony Eden1955-1957
Harold Macmillan1957-1963
Alec Douglas-Home1963-1964
Harold Wilson1964-1970, 1974-76
Edward Heath1970-1974
James Callaghan1976-1979
Margaret Thatcher1979-1990

List of prime ministers of the United Kingdom by age

This is a list of prime ministers of the United Kingdom by age. This table can be sorted to display prime ministers of the United Kingdom by name, order of office, date of birth, age at appointment, length of retirement, or lifespan. Age at appointment is determined by the day a prime minister assumed office for the first time. Length of retirement is determined from the day a prime minister leaves office for the final time until their death.

Two measures of longevity are given this is to allow for the differing number of leap days occurring within the life of each Prime Minister. The first figure is the number of days between date of birth and date of death, allowing for leap days in parentheses the same period given in years and days, with the number of whole years that the Prime Minister had lived, and the days being the remaining number of days from their last birthday. Where the prime minister in question is still living, their longevity is measured up to 26 June 2021.

List of prime ministers of the United Kingdom by education

A list of prime ministers of the United Kingdom and the educational institutions they attended. As of November 2020 [update] , of the 55 prime ministers to date, 28 were educated at the University of Oxford (including 13 at Christ Church), and 14 at the University of Cambridge (including six at Trinity College). Three attended the University of Edinburgh, three the University of Glasgow, and two Mason Science College, a predecessor institution of the University of Birmingham. John Major was (as of 2021) the last of the eight prime ministers who did not attend university after leaving secondary education. A number of the prime ministers who attended university never graduated.

Twenty prime ministers were schooled at Eton College, of whom nine were educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, including all three who held office between 1880 and 1902 (Gladstone, Salisbury, Rosebery). Seven were educated at Harrow School and six at Westminster School. Ten prime ministers to date have been educated at only non-fee-paying schools these include all five who held office between 1964 and 1997 (Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major). Theresa May was educated at both independent and grammar schools. Three did not receive (primary or secondary) school education and were homeschooled during childhood.

Fifteen prime ministers trained as barristers at the Inns of Court, including 12 at Lincoln's Inn (although not all were called to the bar). Two (Wellington and Churchill) completed officer training at military academies.

Although William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath (in 1746) and James Waldegrave, 2nd Earl Waldegrave (in 1757) briefly attempted to form governments, neither is usually counted as Prime Minister. They are not listed below.

The Earl of Bute (Groningen & Leiden): the only Prime Minister to graduate from a university outside the UK.

William Pitt the Younger (Pembroke, Cambridge): home schooled went to Cambridge aged 14, graduated at 17, MP at 21, Prime Minister at 24. MP for Cambridge University.

W. E. Gladstone (Eton Christ Church, Oxford Lincoln's Inn): attended the three institutions with most alumni prime ministers. MP for Oxford University.

Margaret Thatcher (Somerville, Oxford): the first female PM, educated at an all-female school and college studied Chemistry, the only PM with a science degree.

Gordon Brown (Edinburgh): the only Prime Minister to complete a PhD. Served as University Rector 1972–75, while still a student.

23 things you (probably) didn’t know about No 10 Downing Street, the official residence of Britain’s prime ministers

Felicity Day takes a glimpse behind the world’s most famous front door, reveals 23 fascinating facts about the official residence of the prime minister and the events that have taken place within its walls

This competition is now closed

Published: April 3, 2021 at 7:24 am

It was given as a gift from a king

In 1732 a grateful King George II presented Sir Robert Walpole with a house on Downing Street. Walpole, who is usually recognised as the first to have and to use the powers of a prime minister, refused the property as a personal gift. Instead, he agreed to accept it as an official residence for the First Lord of the Treasury, to which post – held by Walpole for more than 20 years – “he got it annexed for ever”.

No 10 Downing Street was initially No 5

The king’s gift was, in fact, two houses: one fronting onto Downing Street and a larger one overlooking Horse Guards behind. Walpole moved in only once the two had been combined and refurbished, becoming the first premier to call Downing Street home in September 1735. The house was then actually No 5, and remained so until 1779 when it was renumbered.

Its historic colour is the result of air pollution

No 10 Downing Street’s distinctive brickwork is not actually black – restoration works in the 1960s revealed that the terrace was built with yellow bricks, subsequently blackened by two centuries of inner-city air pollution. A black colourwash is used today to maintain its historic appearance.

A brewery once stood the land

The land on which Downing Street stands was once part of the ancient Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Norman settlements of Thorney Island. Later home to a brewery, it was in the hands of the Crown by the reign of Henry VIII, sitting on the edge of the king’s vast Whitehall Palace site.

A house there was leased by Elizabeth I to one of her favourites, Sir Thomas Knyvet, in 1581, and it was his niece, Mrs Hampden, who was residing in it when the land was confiscated under Oliver Cromwell (although she still continued to live there).

The house was built by one of Oliver Cromwell’s spymasters

A “perfidious rogue” and “ungrateful villain” was how diarist Samuel Pepys described the man who gave his name to Britain’s most famous street. Sir George Downing was a former preacher who became one of Cromwell’s most high-profile spymasters in the wake of Charles I’s execution in 1649, only to switch sides when the Restoration loomed.

Having traded his secrets for a pardon from the exiled Charles II, Downing went on to round up his former comrades for execution, receiving a baronetcy from his grateful king and settling into a new life as a government administrator – admired for his capabilities, but despised for his self-interest.

The former Crown land in Whitehall, Downing had acquired in 1654. Undeterred when the transfer was declared null and void at the Restoration in 1660, Downing brazenly told the king that it had come to him in payment of a debt, and was granted a lease of the site and liberty to build on it. With an eye solely to profit, he erected a series of 15 to 20 terraced houses and gave the street his name.

It wasn’t built to last

Sited on boggy ground and cheaply constructed with shallow, ineffective foundations, Sir George Downing’s terrace was not built to last. An £11,000 ‘Great Repair’ begun in the 1780s was the first of a series of works that failed to fix the issues.

Having suffered a battering in the Blitz, No 10 was in a desperate state by the 1950s: riddled with dry rot, the risk of fire was so great a firefighter was employed full-time, and there were concerns that the uneven floors might give way. Demolition was, however, rejected as an “act of impiety” and in 1960, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan moved out while the foundations were strengthened and the building renewed – a project that took three years and cost over £1 million.

One prime minister used it to try and convince prostitutes to change their ways

William Ewart Gladstone had one of the most eccentric hobbies of all the prime ministers who have ever resided in Downing Street: late in the evening he would walk to Soho, pick up one or two ladies of the night and take them back to No. 10, where he would attempt to convince them of the error of their ways.

The iconic black door was briefly painted green

The most famous front door in the world has not always been black: in 1908 it was painted green on the instructions of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, only to go back to black at the end of his tenure in 1916. Originally made of oak, the door was replaced with a heavy-duty steel version for security reasons in the 1990s.

A ‘lady in pink’ may haunt the house

Only one prime minister in history has ever reported a ghostly presence at No 10 Downing Street: Harold Wilson and his cleaner both claimed they had – separately – seen a lady dressed in pink in the private apartment.

Alms have been given from its door

Some of Downing Street’s most famous visitors have been greeted and photographed on its doorstep, but during the 18th-century premiership of Lord North you were more likely to find a group of poor people huddled there, as every Sunday he handed out money and food.

Protestors used to be able to march up to the front door

In the centuries before the famous gates to Downing Street arrived in 1989, protesters could – and did – march right up to the prime minister’s front door: most notably the suffragettes.

During the so-called ‘battle of Downing Street’ on 22 November 1910, a total of 159 people (including three men) were arrested while taking part in protests against Herbert Asquith. The suffragettes would return to Downing Street time and again during the course of their campaign, breaking windows, chaining themselves to railings and directly confronting politicians.

The IRA attacked No 10 in 1991

The Irish militants targeted No 10 on 7 February 1991. Prevented from getting into Downing Street itself by the gates installed less than two years previously, they fired their three mortar bombs from a transit van parked out on Whitehall.

There were no mod-cons for incoming prime ministers

When Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald came to power in January 1924, he and daughter Ishbel were shocked to find that the state provided so little furniture for the large and rambling house at Downing Street, and none of the cutlery, crockery or silver necessary for official entertaining – not even any bedsheets.

Unlike most of his predecessors, MacDonald had no luxury country home on which to call, and the provisions of his modest house were nowhere near sufficient. Ishbel was sent to the January sales to stock up, and would later recall having to help her father by funding more items from a small personal inheritance.

Nor were there any servants

Engaging (and paying for) Downing Street’s domestic staff has always been the responsibility of the tenant. During David Lloyd George’s tenure the staff were all Welsh nationals, who spoke to each other – and often the prime minister’s family – in Welsh.

By the mid-19th century it was surrounded by brothels and gin parlours

Minutes from the Houses of Parliament, we can think of no better location for the prime minister’s residence than Downing Street. It was not so in the early 1800s. By then, it was “a dingy solitary street with a dirty public house on the corner and a row of third-rate lodging houses between it and the Foreign Office” – a building which was itself dilapidated.

The surrounding area was becoming seedier every year, too – by 1846 there were 170 brothels and 145 gin parlours within the vicinity. Plans to demolish the entire north-side terrace were seriously considered, but numbers 10, 11 and 12 survived.

  • The gin craze: why did it sweep across London and much of England during the first half of the 18th century

Not every prime minister has called it home

It has never been a requirement for the prime minister to live at Downing Street. Many Georgian and Victorian premiers – including Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel and Viscount Palmerston – preferred to remain in their own London townhouses, using No 10 as an office, or allowing their chancellors to move in. Of the 31 men in office between 1735 and 1902, only 16 resided there. Some more recent prime ministers have elected to live in the spacious flat at No 11.

One operation has been performed in the house

The only operation known to have been carried out at No 10 is the removal of a facial cyst troubling William Pitt the Younger in 1786. He reportedly rebuked the surgeon for taking half-a-minute longer to perform the procedure than his estimate of six minutes.

Royal visits are not unheard of

Although the monarch has not attended cabinet meetings regularly since the reign of George III, the royals have been frequent visitors to No 10. Queen Caroline came for breakfast a week after Sir Robert Walpole moved in Edward VIII was smuggled in for secret talks with Stanley Baldwin about his proposed marriage to Wallis Simpson and George VI risked the air raids to dine with Winston Churchill during the Second World War.

‘Mousers’ are among No 10’s most important residents

Mice have long stalked the corridors of No 10, meaning that government officials have often relied on ‘mousers’ for help. Larry is just the latest in a long line of feline residents, including Winston Churchill’s so-called ‘Munich Mouser’. Churchill’s nickname for the cat reflected the fact that the moggie’s previous owner, Neville Chamberlain, had signed the controversial Munich Agreement in support of German appeasement.

The first Downing Street Christmas tree was introduced by Thatcher

Downing Street’s Christmas tree is one of its more recent traditions, begun by Margaret Thatcher. Since 1999, it has been supplied by the winner of a competition organised by the British Christmas Tree Growers Association.

It was a wartime hub in WWI, but not WWII

During the First World War, No 10 was a hive of activity. In January 1917, David Lloyd George set up a group of wooden huts on the lawn (known as the ‘garden suburb’) in order to house extra staff.

It was much quieter in the Second World War. Amid concerns about the house’s stability, Winston Churchill was persuaded to move into a flat above the underground bunker we now know as the Churchill War Rooms. He did, however, insist on using No. 10 regularly for meetings and dinners, so certain rooms were reinforced with steel and a shelter was constructed under the house, where the prime minister was once forced to seek refuge with George VI.

There are 61 years separating the oldest and youngest incumbents

Taking office aged 24 in 1783, William Pitt the Younger is Britain’s most youthful premier to date – but also the youngest to live at No 10, moving in as chancellor aged 23. William Ewart Gladstone was the oldest incumbent, leaving Downing Street at the age of 84.

It is unclear why the zero in ‘No 10’ is askance

Theories abound as to why the zero on No 10’s front door is slightly askew. Some believe the original number was badly fixed and the position has been forever preserved in tribute others that its angle was deliberate, replicating the tilted letter ‘O’ in an ancient Roman style of lettering that had been adopted as a typeface by the Ministry of Works.

Felicity Day is a freelance writer specialising in the history of the Georgian and Regency eras


Childhood Edit

Disraeli was born on 21 December 1804 at 6 King's Road, Bedford Row, Bloomsbury, London, [n 1] the second child and eldest son of Isaac D'Israeli, a literary critic and historian, and Maria (Miriam), née Basevi. [2] The family was mostly from Italy, of mixed Portuguese and Sephardic Jewish, mercantile background with some Italkim, and Ashkenazi origins. [4] [n 2] Disraeli later romanticised his origins, claiming his father's family was of grand Iberian and Venetian descent in fact Isaac's family was of no great distinction, [5] but on Disraeli's mother's side, in which he took no interest, there were some distinguished forebears, including the Rothschilds and Isaac Cardoso. [6] [7] [n 3] Historians differ on Disraeli's motives for rewriting his family history: Bernard Glassman argues that it was intended to give him status comparable to that of England's ruling elite [8] Sarah Bradford believes "his dislike of the commonplace would not allow him to accept the facts of his birth as being as middle-class and undramatic as they really were". [9]

Disraeli's siblings were Sarah (1802–1859), Naphtali (born and died 1807), Ralph (1809–1898), and James ("Jem") (1813–1868). He was close to his sister, and on affectionate but more distant terms with his surviving brothers. [10] Details of his schooling are sketchy. [11] From the age of about six he was a day boy at a dame school in Islington that one of his biographers later described as "for those days a very high-class establishment". [12] [n 4] Two years later or so—the exact date has not been ascertained—he was sent as a boarder to Rev John Potticary's St Piran's school at Blackheath. [17] While he was there events at the family home changed the course of Disraeli's education and of his whole life. Following a quarrel in 1813 with the synagogue of Bevis Marks, his father renounced Judaism and had the four children baptised into the Church of England in July and August 1817. [11]

Isaac D'Israeli had never taken religion very seriously, but had remained a conforming member of the Bevis Marks Synagogue. [5] His father, the elder Benjamin, was a prominent and devout member it was probably from respect for him that Isaac did not leave when he fell out with the synagogue authorities in 1813. [n 5] After Benjamin senior died in 1816 Isaac felt free to leave the congregation following a second dispute. [11] [n 6] Isaac's friend Sharon Turner, a solicitor, convinced him that although he could comfortably remain unattached to any formal religion it would be disadvantageous to the children if they did so. Turner stood as godfather when Benjamin was baptised, aged twelve, on 31 July 1817. [18]

Conversion to Christianity enabled Disraeli to contemplate a career in politics. Britain in the early-nineteenth century was not a greatly anti-Semitic society, and there had been Members of Parliament (MPs) from Jewish families since Samson Gideon in 1770. But until Jews Relief Act 1858, MPs were required to take the oath of allegiance "on the true faith of a Christian", necessitating at least nominal conversion. [20] It is not known whether Disraeli formed any ambition for a parliamentary career at the time of his baptism, but there is no doubt that he bitterly regretted his parents' decision not to send him to Winchester College. [21] As one of the great public schools of England, Winchester consistently provided recruits to the political elite. [22] His two younger brothers were sent there, and it is not clear why Isaac D'Israeli chose to send his eldest son to a much less prestigious school. [23] The boy evidently held his mother responsible for the decision Bradford speculates that "Benjamin's delicate health and his obviously Jewish appearance may have had something to do with it." [21] The school chosen for him was run by Eliezer Cogan at Higham Hill in Walthamstow. He began there in the autumn term of 1817 [17] he later recalled his education:

I was at school for two or three years under the Revd. Dr Cogan, a Greek scholar of eminence, who had contributed notes to the A[e]schylus of Bishop Blomfield, & was himself the Editor of the Greek Gnostic poets. After this I was with a private tutor for two years in my own County, & my education was severely classical. Too much so in the pride of boyish erudition, I edited the Idonisian Eclogue of Theocritus, wh. was privately printed. This was my first production: puerile pedantry. [24]

1820s Edit

In November 1821, shortly before his seventeenth birthday, Disraeli was articled as a clerk to a firm of solicitors—Swain, Stevens, Maples, Pearse and Hunt—in the City of London. [25] T F Maples was not only the young Disraeli's employer and a friend of his father's, but also his prospective father-in-law: Isaac and Maples entertained the possibility that the latter's only daughter might be a suitable match for Benjamin. [26] A friendship developed, but there was no romance. The firm had a large and profitable business, and as the biographer R W Davis observes, the clerkship was "the kind of secure, respectable position that many fathers dream of for their children". [25] Although biographers including Robert Blake and Bradford comment that such a post was incompatible with Disraeli's romantic and ambitious nature, he reportedly gave his employers satisfactory service, and later professed to have learned a good deal from his time with the firm. [27] He recalled, "I had some scruples, for even then I dreamed of Parliament. My father's refrain always was 'Philip Carteret Webb', who was the most eminent solicitor of his boyhood and who was an MP. It would be a mistake to suppose that the two years and more that I was in the office of our friend were wasted. I have often thought, though I have often regretted the University, that it was much the reverse." [28]

The year after joining Maples' firm, Benjamin changed his surname from D'Israeli to Disraeli. His reasons for doing so are unknown, but the biographer Bernard Glassman surmises that it was to avoid being confused with his father. [29] Disraeli's sister and brothers adopted the new version of the name Isaac and his wife retained the older form. [29] [n 7]

Disraeli toured Belgium and the Rhine Valley with his father in the summer of 1824 he later wrote that it was while travelling on the Rhine that he decided to abandon his position: "I determined when descending those magical waters that I would not be a lawyer." [34] On their return to England he left the solicitors, at the suggestion of Maples, with the aim of qualifying as a barrister. He enrolled as a student at Lincoln's Inn and joined the chambers of his uncle, Nathaniel Basevy, and then those of Benjamin Austen, who persuaded Isaac that Disraeli would never make a barrister and should be allowed to pursue a literary career. [35] He had made a tentative start: in May 1824 he submitted a manuscript to his father's friend, the publisher John Murray, but withdrew it before Murray could decide whether to publish it. [36] Released from the law, Disraeli did some work for Murray, but turned most of his attention not to literature but to speculative dealing on the stock exchange. [37]

There was at the time a boom in shares in South American mining companies. Spain was losing its South American colonies in the face of rebellions. At the urging of George Canning the British government recognised the new independent governments of Argentina (1824), Colombia and Mexico (both 1825). [38] With no money of his own, Disraeli borrowed money to invest. He became involved with the financier J. D. Powles, who was prominent among those encouraging the mining boom. In the course of 1825, Disraeli wrote three anonymous pamphlets for Powles, promoting the companies. [39] The pamphlets were published by John Murray, who invested heavily in the boom. [40]

Murray had for some time had ambitions to establish a new morning paper to compete with The Times. [41] In 1825 Disraeli convinced him that he should proceed. The new paper, The Representative, promoted the mines and those politicians who supported them, particularly Canning. Disraeli impressed Murray with his energy and commitment to the project, but he failed in his key task of persuading the eminent writer John Gibson Lockhart to edit the paper. After that, Disraeli's influence on Murray waned, and to his resentment he was sidelined in the affairs of The Representative. [41] The paper survived only six months, partly because the mining bubble burst in late 1825, and partly because, according to Blake, the paper was "atrociously edited", and would have failed regardless. [42]

The bursting of the mining bubble was ruinous for Disraeli. By June 1825 he and his business partners had lost £7,000. Disraeli could not pay off the last of his debts from this debacle until 1849. [43] He turned to writing, motivated partly by his desperate need for money, and partly by a wish for revenge on Murray and others by whom he felt slighted. [44] There was a vogue for what was called "silver-fork fiction"—novels depicting aristocratic life, usually by anonymous authors, read avidly by the aspirational middle classes. [45] Disraeli's first novel, Vivian Grey, published anonymously in four volumes in 1826–27, was a thinly veiled re-telling of the affair of The Representative. [46] It sold well, but caused much offence in influential circles when the authorship was discovered. [46] Disraeli, then just 23 years old, did not move in high society, as the numerous solecisms in his book made obvious. Reviewers were sharply critical on these grounds of both the author and the book. Furthermore, Murray and Lockhart, men of great influence in literary circles, believed that Disraeli had caricatured them and abused their confidence—an accusation denied by the author but repeated by many of his biographers. [47] In later editions Disraeli made many changes, softening his satire, but the damage to his reputation proved long-lasting. [43]

Disraeli's biographer Jonathan Parry writes that the financial failure and personal criticism that Disraeli suffered in 1825 and 1826 were probably the trigger for a serious nervous crisis affecting him over the next four years: "He had always been moody, sensitive, and solitary by nature, but now became seriously depressed and lethargic." [43] He was still living with his parents in London, but in search of the "change of air" recommended by the family's doctors Isaac took a succession of houses in the country and on the coast, before Disraeli sought wider horizons. [48]

1830–1837 Edit

Together with his sister's fiancé, William Meredith, Disraeli travelled widely in southern Europe and beyond in 1830–31. [n 8] The trip was financed partly by another high society novel, The Young Duke, written in 1829–30. The tour was cut short suddenly by Meredith's death from smallpox in Cairo in July 1831. [n 9] Despite this tragedy, and the need for treatment for a sexually transmitted disease on his return, Disraeli felt enriched by his experiences. He became, in Parry's words, "aware of values that seemed denied to his insular countrymen. The journey encouraged his self-consciousness, his moral relativism, and his interest in Eastern racial and religious attitudes." [43] Blake regards the tour as one of the formative experiences of Disraeli's whole career: "[T]he impressions that it made on him were life-lasting. They conditioned his attitude toward some of the most important political problems which faced him in his later years—especially the Eastern Question they also coloured many of his novels." [51]

Disraeli wrote two novels in the aftermath of the tour. Contarini Fleming (1832) was avowedly a self-portrait. It is subtitled "a psychological autobiography", and depicts the conflicting elements of its hero's character: the duality of northern and Mediterranean ancestry, the dreaming artist and the bold man of action. As Parry observes, the book ends on a political note, setting out Europe's progress "from feudal to federal principles". [43] The Wondrous Tale of Alroy the following year portrayed the problems of a medieval Jew in deciding between a small, exclusively Jewish state and a large empire embracing all. [43]

After the two novels were published, Disraeli declared that he would "write no more about myself". [52] He had already turned his attention to politics in 1832, during the great crisis over the Reform Bill. He contributed to an anti-Whig pamphlet edited by John Wilson Croker and published by Murray entitled England and France: or a cure for Ministerial Gallomania. The choice of a Tory publication was regarded as strange by Disraeli's friends and relatives, who thought him more of a Radical. Indeed, he had objected to Murray about Croker's inserting "high Tory" sentiment: Disraeli remarked, "it is quite impossible that anything adverse to the general measure of Reform can issue from my pen." [n 10] Moreover, at the time Gallomania was published, Disraeli was electioneering in High Wycombe in the Radical interest. [55]

Disraeli's politics at the time were influenced both by his rebellious streak and by his desire to make his mark. [56] At that time, the politics of the nation were dominated by members of the aristocracy, together with a few powerful commoners. The Whigs derived from the coalition of Lords who had forced through the Bill of Rights in 1689 and in some cases were their actual descendants, not merely spiritual. The Tories tended to support King and Church, and sought to thwart political change. A small number of Radicals, generally from northern constituencies, were the strongest advocates of continuing reform. [57] In the early-1830s the Tories and the interests they represented appeared to be a lost cause. The other great party, the Whigs, were anathema to Disraeli: "Toryism is worn out & I cannot condescend to be a Whig." [56] There were two general elections in 1832 Disraeli unsuccessfully stood as a Radical at High Wycombe in each. [58]

Disraeli's political views embraced certain Radical policies, particularly democratic reform of the electoral system, and also some Tory ones, including protectionism. He began to move in Tory circles. In 1834 he was introduced to the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Lyndhurst, by Henrietta Sykes, wife of Sir Francis Sykes. She was having an affair with Lyndhurst, and began another with Disraeli. [n 11] Disraeli and Lyndhurst took an immediate liking to each other. Lyndhurst was an indiscreet gossip with a fondness for intrigue this appealed greatly to Disraeli, who became his secretary and go-between. In 1835 Disraeli stood for the last time as a Radical, unsuccessfully contesting High Wycombe once again.

In April 1835, Disraeli fought a by-election at Taunton as a Tory candidate. [61] The Irish MP Daniel O'Connell, misled by inaccurate press reports, thought Disraeli had slandered him while electioneering at Taunton he launched an outspoken attack, referring to Disraeli as:

a reptile . just fit now, after being twice discarded by the people, to become a Conservative. He possesses all the necessary requisites of perfidy, selfishness, depravity, want of principle, etc., which would qualify him for the change. His name shows that he is of Jewish origin. I do not use it as a term of reproach there are many most respectable Jews. But there are, as in every other people, some of the lowest and most disgusting grade of moral turpitude and of those I look upon Mr. Disraeli as the worst. [62]

Disraeli's public exchanges with O'Connell, extensively reproduced in The Times, [63] included a demand for a duel with the 60-year-old O'Connell's son (which resulted in Disraeli's temporary detention by the authorities), a reference to "the inextinguishable hatred with which [he] shall pursue [O'Connell's] existence", and the accusation that O'Connell's supporters had a "princely revenue wrung from a starving race of fanatical slaves". [64] Disraeli was highly gratified by the dispute, which propelled him to general public notice for the first time. [65] He did not defeat the incumbent Whig member, Henry Labouchere, but the Taunton constituency was regarded as unwinnable by the Tories. Disraeli kept Labouchere's majority down to 170, [66] a good showing that put him in line for a winnable seat in the near future. [67]

With Lyndhurst's encouragement Disraeli turned to writing propaganda for his newly adopted party. His Vindication of the English Constitution, was published in December 1835. It was couched in the form of an open letter to Lyndhurst, and in Bradford's view encapsulates a political philosophy that Disraeli adhered to for the rest of his life. [68] Its themes were the value of benevolent aristocratic government, a loathing of political dogma, and the modernisation of Tory policies. [69] The following year he wrote a series of satires on politicians of the day, which he published in The Times under the pen-name "Runnymede". His targets included the Whigs, collectively and individually, Irish nationalists, and political corruption. One essay ended:

The English nation, therefore, rallies for rescue from the degrading plots of a profligate oligarchy, a barbarizing sectarianism, and a boroughmongering Papacy, round their hereditary leaders—the Peers. The House of Lords, therefore, at this moment represents everything in the realm except the Whig oligarchs, their tools the Dissenters, and their masters the Irish priests. In the mean time, the Whigs bawl that there is a "collision!" It is true there is a collision, but it is not a collision between the Lords and the People, but between the Ministers and the Constitution. [70]

Disraeli was now firmly in the Tory camp. He was elected to the exclusively Tory Carlton Club in 1836, and was also taken up by the party's leading hostess, Lady Londonderry. [71] In June 1837 William IV died, the young Queen Victoria, his niece, succeeded him, and parliament was dissolved. [72] On the recommendation of the Carlton Club, Disraeli was adopted as a Tory parliamentary candidate at the ensuing general election.

Back-bencher Edit

In the election in July 1837 Disraeli won a seat in the House of Commons as one of two members, both Tory, for the constituency of Maidstone. [73] The other was Wyndham Lewis, who helped finance Disraeli's election campaign, and who died the following year. [74] In the same year Disraeli published a novel, Henrietta Temple, which was a love story and social comedy, drawing on his affair with Henrietta Sykes. He had broken off the relationship in late 1836, distraught that she had taken yet another lover. [75] His other novel of this period is Venetia, a romance based on the characters of Shelley and Byron, written quickly to raise much-needed money. [76]

Disraeli made his maiden speech in Parliament on 7 December 1837. He followed O'Connell, whom he sharply criticised for the latter's "long, rambling, jumbling, speech". [77] He was shouted down by O'Connell's supporters. [n 12] After this unpromising start Disraeli kept a low profile for the rest of the parliamentary session. He was a loyal supporter of the party leader Sir Robert Peel and his policies, with the exception of a personal sympathy for the Chartist movement that most Tories did not share. [43]

In 1839 Disraeli married Mary Anne Lewis, the widow of Wyndham Lewis. Twelve years Disraeli's senior, Mary Lewis had a substantial income of £5,000 a year. His motives were generally assumed to be mercenary, but the couple came to cherish one another, remaining close until she died more than three decades later. [80] "Dizzy married me for my money", his wife said later, "But, if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love." [81]

Finding the financial demands of his Maidstone seat too much, Disraeli secured a Tory nomination for Shrewsbury, winning one of the constituency's two seats at the 1841 general election, despite serious opposition, and heavy debts which opponents seized on. [82] The election was a massive defeat for the Whigs across the country, and Peel became Prime Minister. [83] Disraeli hoped, unrealistically, for ministerial office. [n 13] Though disappointed at being left on the back benches, he continued his support for Peel in 1842 and 1843, seeking to establish himself as an expert on foreign affairs and international trade. [43]

Although a Tory (or Conservative, as some in the party now called themselves) [n 14] Disraeli was sympathetic to some of the aims of Chartism, and argued for an alliance between the landed aristocracy and the working class against the increasing power of the merchants and new industrialists in the middle class. [89] After Disraeli won widespread acclaim in March 1842 for worsting the formidable Lord Palmerston in debate, he was taken up by a small group of idealistic new Tory MPs, with whom he formed the Young England group. They held that the landed interests should use their power to protect the poor from exploitation by middle-class businessmen. [90] [91] [92]

For many years in his parliamentary career Disraeli hoped to forge a paternalistic Tory-Radical alliance, but he was unsuccessful. Before the Reform Act 1867, the working class did not possess the vote and therefore had little political power. Although Disraeli forged a personal friendship with John Bright, a Lancashire manufacturer and leading Radical, Disraeli was unable to persuade Bright to sacrifice his distinct position for parliamentary advancement. When Disraeli attempted to secure a Tory-Radical cabinet in 1852, Bright refused. [93] [n 15]

Disraeli gradually became a sharp critic of Peel's government, often deliberately taking positions contrary to those of his nominal chief. The best known of these stances were over the Maynooth Grant in 1845 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. But the young MP had attacked his leader as early as 1843 on Ireland and then on foreign policy interventions. In a letter of February 1844, he slighted the Prime Minister for failing to send him a Policy Circular. He laid into the Whigs as freebooters, swindlers and conmen but Peel's own Free Trade policies were directly in the firing line. [94]

The President of the Board of Trade, William Gladstone, resigned from the cabinet over the Maynooth Grant. [95] The Corn Laws imposed a tariff on imported wheat, protecting British farmers from foreign competition, but making the cost of bread artificially high. Peel hoped that the repeal of the Corn Laws and the resultant influx of cheaper wheat into Britain would relieve the condition of the poor, and in particular the suffering caused by successive failure of potato crops in Ireland—the Great Famine. [96] [n 16]

The first months of 1846 were dominated by a battle in Parliament between the free traders and the protectionists over the repeal of the Corn Laws, with the latter rallying around Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck. The landowning interest in the Party, under its leader, William Miles MP for East Somerset, had called upon Disraeli to lead the Party. Disraeli had declined, though pledged support to the Country Gentlemen's Interes, as Bentink had offered to lead if he had Disraeli's support. Disraeli stated, in a letter to Sir William Miles of 11 June 1860, that he wished to help "because, from my earliest years, my sympathies had been with the landed interest of England". [98]

An alliance of free-trade Conservatives (the "Peelites"), Radicals, and Whigs carried repeal, [99] and the Conservative Party split: the Peelites moved towards the Whigs, while a "new" Conservative Party formed around the protectionists, led by Disraeli, Bentinck, and Lord Stanley (later Lord Derby). [100]

The split in the Tory party over the repeal of the Corn Laws had profound implications for Disraeli's political career: almost every Tory politician with experience of office followed Peel, leaving the rump bereft of leadership. In Blake's words, "[Disraeli] found himself almost the only figure on his side capable of putting up the oratorical display essential for a parliamentary leader." [101] Looking on from the House of Lords, the Duke of Argyll wrote that Disraeli "was like a subaltern in a great battle where every superior officer was killed or wounded". [102] If the Tory Party could muster the electoral support necessary to form a government, then Disraeli now seemed to be guaranteed high office. However, he would take office with a group of men who possessed little or no official experience, who had rarely felt moved to speak in the House of Commons, and who, as a group, remained hostile to Disraeli on a personal level. [103] In the event the matter was not put to the test, as the Tory split soon had the party out of office, not regaining power until 1852. [104] The Conservatives would not again have a majority in the House of Commons until 1874. [105]

Bentinck and the leadership Edit

Peel successfully steered the repeal of the Corn Laws through Parliament, and was then defeated by an alliance of all his enemies on the issue of Irish law and order he resigned in June 1846. The Tories remained split and the Queen sent for Lord John Russell, the Whig leader. In the 1847 general election, Disraeli stood, successfully, for the Buckinghamshire constituency. [106] The new House of Commons had more Conservative than Whig members, but the depth of the Tory schism enabled Russell to continue to govern. The Conservatives were led by Bentinck in the Commons and Stanley in the Lords. [101]

In 1847 a small political crisis occurred which removed Bentinck from the leadership and highlighted Disraeli's differences with his own party. In that year's general election, Lionel de Rothschild had been returned for the City of London. As a practising Jew he could not take the oath of allegiance in the prescribed Christian form, and therefore could not take his seat. Lord John Russell, the Whig leader who had succeeded Peel as Prime Minister and like Rothschild was a member for the City of London, proposed in the Commons that the oath should be amended to permit Jews to enter Parliament. [107]

Disraeli spoke in favour of the measure, arguing that Christianity was "completed Judaism", and asking the House of Commons "Where is your Christianity if you do not believe in their Judaism?" [108] Russell and Disraeli's future rival Gladstone thought it brave of him to speak as he did [109] the speech was badly received by his own party. The Tories and the Anglican establishment were hostile to the bill. [n 17] Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, spoke strongly against the measure and implied that Russell was paying off the Jews for helping elect him. [110] With the exception of Disraeli, every member of the future protectionist cabinet then in Parliament voted against the measure. One who was not yet an MP, Lord John Manners, stood against Rothschild when the latter re-submitted himself for election in 1849. Disraeli, who had attended the Protectionists dinner at the Merchant Taylors Hall, joined Bentinck in speaking and voting for the bill, although his own speech was a standard one of toleration. The measure was voted down. [111]

In the aftermath of the debate Bentinck resigned the leadership and was succeeded by Lord Granby Disraeli's own speech, thought by many of his own party to be blasphemous, ruled him out for the time being. [112] While these intrigues played out, Disraeli was working with the Bentinck family to secure the necessary financing to purchase Hughenden Manor, in Buckinghamshire. The possession of a country house, and incumbency of a county constituency were regarded as essential for a Tory with ambitions to lead the party. Disraeli and his wife alternated between Hughenden and several homes in London for the rest of their marriage. The negotiations were complicated by Bentinck's sudden death on 21 September 1848, but Disraeli obtained a loan of £25,000 from Bentinck's brothers Lord Henry Bentinck and Lord Titchfield. [113]

Within a month of his appointment Granby resigned the leadership in the Commons, feeling himself inadequate to the post, and the party functioned without a leader in the Commons for the rest of the parliamentary session. At the start of the next session, affairs were handled by a triumvirate of Granby, Disraeli, and John Charles Herries—indicative of the tension between Disraeli and the rest of the party, who needed his talents but mistrusted him. This confused arrangement ended with Granby's resignation in 1851 Disraeli effectively ignored the two men regardless. [114]

First Derby government Edit

In March 1851, Lord John Russell's government was defeated over a bill to equalise the county and borough franchises, mostly because of divisions among his supporters. He resigned, and the Queen sent for Stanley, who felt that a minority government could do little and would not last long, so Russell remained in office. Disraeli regretted this, hoping for an opportunity, however brief, to show himself capable in office. [115] Stanley, on the other hand, deprecated his inexperienced followers as a reason for not assuming office, "These are not names I can put before the Queen." [116]

At the end of June 1851, Stanley's father died, and he succeeded to his title as Earl of Derby. [117] The Whigs were wracked by internal dissensions during the second half of 1851, much of which Parliament spent in recess. Russell dismissed Lord Palmerston from the cabinet, leaving the latter determined to deprive the Prime Minister of office as well. Palmerston did so within weeks of Parliament's reassembly on 4 February 1852, his followers combining with Disraeli's Tories to defeat the government on a Militia Bill, and Russell resigned. Derby had either to take office or risk damage to his reputation [118] and he accepted the Queen's commission as Prime Minister. Palmerston declined any office Derby had hoped to have him as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Disraeli, his closest ally, was his second choice and accepted, though disclaiming any great knowledge in the financial field. Gladstone refused to join the government. [119] Disraeli may have been attracted to the office by the £5,000 per year salary, which would help pay his debts. [120] Few of the new cabinet had held office before when Derby tried to inform the Duke of Wellington of the names of the Queen's new ministers, the old Duke, who was somewhat deaf, inadvertently branded the new government by incredulously repeating "Who? Who?" [118]

In the following weeks, Disraeli served as Leader of the House (with Derby as Prime Minister in the Lords) and as Chancellor. He wrote regular reports on proceedings in the Commons to Victoria, who described them as "very curious" and "much in the style of his books". [120] Parliament was prorogued on 1 July 1852 as the Tories could not govern for long as a minority Disraeli hoped that they would gain a majority of about 40. Instead, the election later that month had no clear winner, and the Derby government held to power pending the meeting of Parliament. [121]

Disraeli's task as Chancellor was to devise a budget which would satisfy the protectionist elements who supported the Tories, without uniting the free-traders against it. [122] His proposed budget, which he presented to the Commons on 3 December, lowered the taxes on malt and tea, provisions designed to appeal to the working class. To make his budget revenue-neutral, as funds were needed to provide defences against the French, he doubled the house tax and continued the income tax. [123] Disraeli's overall purpose was to enact policies which would benefit the working classes, making his party more attractive to them. [124] Although the budget did not contain protectionist features, the Opposition was prepared to destroy it—and Disraeli's career as Chancellor—in part out of revenge for his actions against Peel in 1846. MP Sidney Herbert predicted that the budget would fail because "Jews make no converts". [123]

Disraeli delivered the budget on 3 December 1852, [125] and prepared to wind up the debate for the government on 16 December—it was customary for the Chancellor to have the last word. A massive defeat for the government was predicted. Disraeli attacked his opponents individually, and then as a force, "I face a Coalition . This, too, I know, that England does not love coalitions." [126] His speech of three hours was quickly seen as a parliamentary masterpiece. As MPs prepared to divide, Gladstone rose to his feet and began an angry speech, despite the efforts of Tory MPs to shout him down. [127] The interruptions were fewer, as Gladstone gained control of the House, and in the next two hours painted a picture of Disraeli as frivolous and his budget as subversive. The government was defeated by 19 votes, and Derby resigned four days later. He was replaced by the Peelite Earl of Aberdeen, with Gladstone as his Chancellor. [128] Because of Disraeli's unpopularity among the Peelites, no party reconciliation was possible while he remained Tory leader in the House of Commons. [129]

Opposition Edit

With the fall of the government, Disraeli and the Conservatives returned to the Opposition benches. Disraeli would spend three-quarters of his 44-year parliamentary career in Opposition. Derby was reluctant to seek to unseat the government, fearing a repetition of the Who? Who? Ministry and knowing that despite his lieutenant's strengths, shared dislike of Disraeli was part of what had formed the governing coalition. Disraeli, on the other hand, was anxious to return to office. In the interim, Disraeli, as Conservative leader in the Commons, opposed the government on all major measures. [130]

In June 1853 Disraeli was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Oxford. He had been recommended for it by Lord Derby, the university's Chancellor. [131] The start of the Crimean War in 1854 caused a lull in party politics Disraeli spoke patriotically in support. The British military efforts were marked by bungling, and in 1855 a restive Parliament considered a resolution to establish a committee on the conduct of the war. The Aberdeen government chose to make this a motion of confidence Disraeli led the Opposition to defeat the government, 305 to 148. Aberdeen resigned, and the Queen sent for Derby, who to Disraeli's frustration refused to take office. Palmerston was deemed essential to any Whig ministry, and he would not join any he did not head. The Queen reluctantly asked Palmerston to form a government. [132] Under Palmerston, the war went better, and was ended by the Treaty of Paris in early 1856. Disraeli was early to call for peace, but had little influence on events. [133]

When a rebellion broke out in India in 1857, Disraeli took a keen interest in affairs, having been a member of a select committee in 1852 which considered how best to rule the subcontinent, and had proposed eliminating the governing role of the British East India Company. After peace was restored, and Palmerston in early 1858 brought in legislation for direct rule of India by the Crown, Disraeli opposed it. Many Conservative MPs refused to follow him and the bill passed the Commons easily. [134]

Palmerston's grip on the premiership was weakened by his response to the Orsini affair, in which an attempt was made to assassinate the French Emperor Napoleon III by an Italian revolutionary with a bomb made in Birmingham. At the request of the French ambassador, Palmerston put forward amendments to the conspiracy to murder statute, proposing to make creating an infernal device a felony rather than a misdemeanour. He was defeated by 19 votes on the second reading, with many Liberals crossing the aisle against him. He immediately resigned, and Lord Derby returned to office. [135]

Second Derby government Edit

Derby took office at the head of a purely "Conservative" administration, not in coalition with any other faction. He again offered a place to Gladstone, who declined. Disraeli was once more leader of the House of Commons and returned to the Exchequer. As in 1852, Derby led a minority government, dependent on the division of its opponents for survival. [136] As Leader of the House, Disraeli resumed his regular reports to Queen Victoria, who had requested that he include what she "could not meet in newspapers". [137]

During its brief life of just over a year, the Derby government proved moderately progressive. The Government of India Act 1858 ended the role of the East India Company in governing the subcontinent. [138] It also passed the Thames Purification Bill, which funded the construction of much larger sewers for London. [139] Disraeli had supported efforts to allow Jews to sit in Parliament—the oaths required of new members could be made in good faith only by a Christian. Disraeli had a bill passed through the Commons allowing each house of Parliament to determine what oaths its members should take. This was grudgingly agreed to by the House of Lords, with a minority of Conservatives joining with the Opposition to pass it. In 1858, Baron Lionel de Rothschild became the first MP to profess the Jewish faith. [140]

Faced with a vacancy, [n 18] Disraeli and Derby tried yet again to bring Gladstone, still nominally a Conservative MP, into the government, hoping to strengthen it. Disraeli wrote a personal letter to Gladstone, asking him to place the good of the party above personal animosity: "Every man performs his office, and there is a Power, greater than ourselves, that disposes of all this." [142] In responding to Disraeli, Gladstone denied that personal feelings played any role in his decisions then and previously whether to accept office, while acknowledging that there were differences between him and Derby "broader than you may have supposed". [143]

The Tories pursued a Reform Bill in 1859, which would have resulted in a modest increase to the franchise. The Liberals were healing the breaches between those who favoured Russell and the Palmerston loyalists, and in late March 1859, the government was defeated on a Russell-sponsored amendment. Derby dissolved Parliament, and the ensuing general election resulted in modest Tory gains, but not enough to control the Commons. When Parliament assembled, Derby's government was defeated by 13 votes on an amendment to the Address from the Throne. He resigned, and the Queen reluctantly sent for Palmerston again. [144]

Opposition and third term as Chancellor Edit

After Derby's second ejection from office, Disraeli faced dissension within Conservative ranks from those who blamed him for the defeat, or who felt he was disloyal to Derby—the former Prime Minister warned Disraeli of some MPs seeking his removal from the front bench. [145] Among the conspirators were Lord Robert Cecil, a young Conservative MP who would a quarter century later become Prime Minister as Lord Salisbury he wrote that having Disraeli as leader in the Commons decreased the Conservatives' chance of holding office. When Cecil's father objected, Lord Robert stated, "I have merely put into print what all the country gentlemen were saying in private." [145]

Disraeli led a toothless Opposition in the Commons—seeing no way of unseating Palmerston, Derby had privately agreed not to seek the government's defeat. [146] Disraeli kept himself informed on foreign affairs, and on what was going on in cabinet, thanks to a source within it. When the American Civil War began in 1861, Disraeli said little publicly, but like most Englishmen expected the South to win. Less reticent were Palmerston, Gladstone (again Chancellor) and Russell, whose statements in support of the South contributed to years of hard feelings in the United States. [147] In 1862, Disraeli met Prussian Count Otto von Bismarck for the first time and said of him, "be careful about that man, he means what he says". [148]

The party truce ended in 1864, with Tories outraged over Palmerston's handling of the territorial dispute between the German Confederation and Denmark known as the Schleswig-Holstein Question. Disraeli had little help from Derby, who was ill, but he united the party enough on a no-confidence vote to limit the government to a majority of 18—Tory defections and absentees kept Palmerston in office. [149] Despite rumours about Palmerston's health as he passed his eightieth birthday, he remained personally popular, and the Liberals increased their margin in the July 1865 general election. In the wake of the poor election results, Derby predicted to Disraeli that neither of them would ever hold office again. [150]

Political plans were thrown into disarray by Palmerston's death on 18 October 1865. Russell became Prime Minister again, with Gladstone clearly the Liberal Party's leader-in-waiting, and as Leader of the House Disraeli's direct opponent. One of Russell's early priorities was a Reform Bill, but the proposed legislation that Gladstone announced on 12 March 1866 divided his party. The Conservatives and the dissident Liberals repeatedly attacked Gladstone's bill, and in June finally defeated the government Russell resigned on 26 June. The dissidents were unwilling to serve under Disraeli in the House of Commons, and Derby formed a third Conservative minority government, with Disraeli again as Chancellor. [151]

Tory Democrat: the 1867 Reform Act Edit

It was Disraeli's belief that if given the vote British people would use it instinctively to put their natural and traditional rulers, the gentlemen of the Conservative Party, into power. Responding to renewed agitation in the country for popular suffrage, Disraeli persuaded a majority of the cabinet to agree to a Reform bill. With what Derby cautioned was "a leap in the dark", Disraeli had outflanked the Liberals who, as the supposed champions of Reform, dared not oppose him. In the absence of a credible party rival and for fear of having an election called on the issue, Conservatives felt obliged to support Disraeli despite their misgivings. [152]

There were Tory dissenters, most notably Lord Cranborne (as Robert Cecil was by then known) who resigned from the government and spoke against the bill, accusing Disraeli of "a political betrayal which has no parallel in our Parliamentary annals". [153] Even as Disraeli accepted Liberal amendments (although pointedly refusing those moved by Gladstone) [154] that further lowered the property qualification, Cranborne was unable to lead an effective rebellion. Disraeli gained wide acclaim and became a hero to his party for the "marvellous parliamentary skill" with which he secured the passage of Reform in the Commons. [155]

From the Liberal benches too there was admiration. The recognised wit, MP for Nottingham, Bernal Ostborne declared:

I have always thought the Chancellor of Exchequer was the greatest Radical in the House. He has achieved what no other man in the country could have done. He has lugged up that great omnibus full of stupid, heavy, country gentlemen--I only say 'stupid' in the parliamentary sense--and has converted these Conservative into Radical Reformers. [156]

The Reform Act 1867 passed that August. [157] It extended the franchise by 938,427 men—an increase of 88%—by giving the vote to male householders and male lodgers paying at least £10 for rooms. It eliminated rotten boroughs with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, and granted constituencies to 15 unrepresented towns, with extra representation to large municipalities such as Liverpool and Manchester. [158]

Derby had long suffered from attacks of gout which sent him to his bed, unable to deal with politics. As the new session of Parliament approached in February 1868, he was bedridden at his home, Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool. He was reluctant to resign, reasoning that he was only 68, much younger than either Palmerston or Russell at the end of their premierships. Derby knew that his "attacks of illness would, at no distant period, incapacitate me from the discharge of my public duties" doctors had warned him that his health required his resignation from office. [159] In late February, with Parliament in session and Derby absent, he wrote to Disraeli asking for confirmation that "you will not shrink from the additional heavy responsibility". [160] Reassured, he wrote to the Queen, resigning and recommending Disraeli as "only he could command the cordial support, en masse, of his present colleagues". [160] Disraeli went to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where the Queen asked him to form a government. The monarch wrote to her daughter, Prussian Crown Princess Victoria, "Mr. Disraeli is Prime Minister! A proud thing for a man 'risen from the people' to have obtained!" [160] The new Prime Minister told those who came to congratulate him, "I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole." [161]

First government (February–December 1868) Edit

The Conservatives remained a minority in the House of Commons and the passage of the Reform Bill required the calling of a new election once the new voting register had been compiled. Disraeli's term as Prime Minister, which began in February 1868, would therefore be short unless the Conservatives won the general election. He made only two major changes in the cabinet: he replaced Lord Chelmsford as Lord Chancellor with Lord Cairns, and brought in George Ward Hunt as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Derby had intended to replace Chelmsford once a vacancy in a suitable sinecure developed. Disraeli was unwilling to wait, and Cairns, in his view, was a far stronger minister. [162]

Disraeli's first premiership was dominated by the heated debate over the Church of Ireland. Although Ireland was largely Roman Catholic, the Church of England represented most landowners. It remained the established church and was funded by direct taxation, which was greatly resented by the Catholics and Presbyterians. An initial attempt by Disraeli to negotiate with Archbishop Manning the establishment of a Catholic university in Dublin foundered in March when Gladstone moved resolutions to disestablish the Irish Church altogether. The proposal united the Liberals under Gladstone's leadership, while causing divisions among the Conservatives. [163]

The Conservatives remained in office because the new electoral register was not yet ready neither party wished a poll under the old roll. Gladstone began using the Liberal majority in the House of Commons to push through resolutions and legislation. Disraeli's government survived until the December general election, at which the Liberals were returned to power with a majority of about 110. [164]

In its short life, the first Disraeli government passed noncontroversial laws. It ended public executions, and the Corrupt Practices Act did much to end electoral bribery. It authorised an early version of nationalisation, having the Post Office buy up the telegraph companies. Amendments to the school law, the Scottish legal system, and the railway laws were passed. [165] Disraeli sent the successful expedition against Tewodros II of Ethiopia under Sir Robert Napier. [166]

Opposition leader 1874 election Edit

With Gladstone's Liberal majority dominant in the Commons, Disraeli could do little but protest as the government advanced legislation. Accordingly, he chose to await Liberal mistakes. Having leisure time as he was not in office, he wrote a new novel, Lothair (1870). A work of fiction by a former prime minister was a novelty for Britain, and the book became a best seller. [167]

By 1872 there was dissent in the Conservative ranks over the failure to challenge Gladstone and his Liberals. This was quieted as Disraeli took steps to assert his leadership of the party, and as divisions among the Liberals became clear. Public support for Disraeli was shown by cheering at a thanksgiving service in 1872 on the recovery of the Prince of Wales from illness, while Gladstone was met with silence. Disraeli had supported the efforts of party manager John Eldon Gorst to put the administration of the Conservative Party on a modern basis. On Gorst's advice, Disraeli gave a speech to a mass meeting in Manchester that year. To roaring approval, he compared the Liberal front bench to "a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest. But the situation is still dangerous. There are occasional earthquakes and ever and again the dark rumbling of the sea." [168] Gladstone, Disraeli stated, dominated the scene and "alternated between a menace and a sigh". [169]

At his first departure from 10 Downing Street in 1868, Disraeli had had Victoria create Mary Anne Viscountess of Beaconsfield in her own right in lieu of a peerage for himself. [170] Through 1872 the eighty-year-old peeress was suffering from stomach cancer. She died on 15 December. Urged by a clergyman to turn her thoughts to Jesus Christ in her final days, she said she could not: "You know Dizzy is my J.C." [171]

In 1873, Gladstone brought forward legislation to establish a Catholic university in Dublin. This divided the Liberals, and on 12 March an alliance of Conservatives and Irish Catholics defeated the government by three votes. Gladstone resigned, and the Queen sent for Disraeli, who refused to take office. Without a general election, a Conservative government would be another minority, dependent for survival on the division of its opponents. Disraeli wanted the power a majority would bring, and felt he could gain it later by leaving the Liberals in office now. Gladstone's government struggled on, beset by scandal and unimproved by a reshuffle. As part of that change, Gladstone took on the office of Chancellor, [n 19] leading to questions as to whether he had to stand for re-election on taking on a second ministry—until the 1920s, MPs becoming ministers, thus taking an office of profit under the Crown, had to seek re-election. [173]

In January 1874, Gladstone called a general election, convinced that if he waited longer, he would do worse at the polls. Balloting was spread over two weeks, beginning on 1 February. [174] Disraeli devoted much of his campaign to decrying the Liberal programme of the past five years. As the constituencies voted, it became clear that the result would be a Conservative majority, the first since 1841. In Scotland, where the Conservatives were perennially weak, they increased from seven seats to nineteen. Overall, they won 350 seats to 245 for the Liberals and 57 for the Irish Home Rule League. The Queen sent for Disraeli, and he became Prime Minister for the second time. [175]

Disraeli's cabinet of twelve, with six peers and six commoners, was the smallest since Reform. Of the peers, five of them had been in Disraeli's 1868 cabinet the sixth, Lord Salisbury, was reconciled to Disraeli after negotiation and became Secretary of State for India. Lord Stanley (who had succeeded his father, the former Prime Minister, as Earl of Derby) became Foreign Secretary and Sir Stafford Northcote the Chancellor. [176]

In August 1876, Disraeli was elevated to the House of Lords as Earl of Beaconsfield and Viscount Hughenden. The Queen had offered to ennoble him as early as 1868 he had then declined. She did so again in 1874, when he fell ill at Balmoral, but he was reluctant to leave the Commons for a house in which he had no experience. Continued ill health during his second premiership caused him to contemplate resignation, but his lieutenant, Derby, was unwilling, feeling that he could not manage the Queen. For Disraeli, the Lords, where the debate was less intense, was the alternative to resignation from office. Five days before the end of the 1876 session of Parliament, on 11 August, Disraeli was seen to linger and look around the chamber before departing the Commons. Newspapers reported his ennoblement the following morning. [177]

In addition to the viscounty bestowed on Mary Anne Disraeli [170] the earldom of Beaconsfield was to have been bestowed on Edmund Burke in 1797, but he had died before receiving it. [178] The name Beaconsfield, a town near Hughenden, also was given to a minor character in Vivian Grey. [179] Disraeli made various statements about his elevation, writing to Selina, Lady Bradford on 8 August 1876, "I am quite tired of that place [the Commons]" [180] but when asked by a friend how he liked the Lords, replied, "I am dead dead but in the Elysian fields." [181]

Domestic policy Edit

Reforming legislation Edit

Under the stewardship of Richard Assheton Cross, the Home Secretary, Disraeli's new government enacted many reforms, including the Artisans' and Labourers' Dwellings Improvement Act 1875, [182] which made inexpensive loans available to towns and cities to construct working-class housing. Also enacted were the Public Health Act 1875, modernising sanitary codes through the nation, [183] the Sale of Food and Drugs Act (1875), and the Education Act (1876). [182]

Disraeli's government also introduced a new Factory Act meant to protect workers, the Conspiracy, and Protection of Property Act 1875, which allowed peaceful picketing, and the Employers and Workmen Act (1875) to enable workers to sue employers in the civil courts if they broke legal contracts. As a result of these social reforms the Liberal-Labour MP Alexander Macdonald told his constituents in 1879, "The Conservative party have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty." [182]

Patronage and Civil Service reform Edit

Gladstone in 1870 had sponsored an Order in Council, introducing competitive examination into the Civil Service, diminishing the political aspects of government hiring. Disraeli did not agree, and while he did not seek to reverse the order, his actions often frustrated its intent. For example, Disraeli made political appointments to positions previously given to career civil servants. In this, he was backed by his party, hungry for office and its emoluments after almost thirty years with only brief spells in government. Disraeli gave positions to hard-up Conservative leaders, even—to Gladstone's outrage—creating one office at £2,000 per year. [184] Nevertheless, Disraeli made fewer peers (only 22, and one of those one of Victoria's sons) than had Gladstone—the Liberal leader had arranged for the bestowal of 37 peerages during his just over five years in office. [185]

As he had in government posts, Disraeli rewarded old friends with clerical positions, making Sydney Turner, son of a good friend of Isaac D'Israeli, Dean of Ripon. [186] He favoured Low church clergymen in promotion, disliking other movements in Anglicanism for political reasons. In this, he came into disagreement with the Queen, who out of loyalty to her late husband, Albert, Prince Consort, preferred Broad church teachings. One controversial appointment had occurred shortly before the 1868 election. When the position of Archbishop of Canterbury fell vacant, Disraeli reluctantly agreed to the Queen's preferred candidate, Archibald Tait, the Bishop of London. To fill Tait's vacant see, Disraeli was urged by many people to appoint Samuel Wilberforce, the former Bishop of Winchester and leading figure in London society. Disraeli disliked Wilberforce and instead appointed John Jackson, the Bishop of Lincoln. Blake suggested that, on balance, these appointments cost Disraeli more votes than they gained him. [187]

Foreign policy Edit

Disraeli always considered foreign affairs to be the most critical and most interesting part of statesmanship. Nevertheless, his biographer Robert Blake doubts that his subject had specific ideas about foreign policy when he took office in 1874. He had rarely travelled abroad since his youthful tour of the Middle East in 1830–1831, he had left Britain only for his honeymoon and three visits to Paris, the last of which was in 1856. As he had criticised Gladstone for a do-nothing foreign policy, he most probably contemplated what actions would reassert Britain's place in Europe. His brief first premiership, and the first year of his second, gave him little opportunity to make his mark in foreign affairs. [188]

Suez Edit

New Crowns for Old depicts Disraeli as Abanazer from the pantomime Aladdin, offering Victoria an imperial crown in exchange for a royal one.

Disraeli cultivated a public image of himself as an Imperialist with grand gestures such as conferring on Queen Victoria the title "Empress of India".

The Suez Canal, opened in 1869, cut weeks and thousands of miles off the sea journey between Britain and India in 1875, approximately 80% of the ships using the canal were British. [189] In the event of another rebellion in India, or of a Russian invasion, the time saved at Suez might be crucial. Built by French interests, 56% of the stocks in the canal remained in their hands, while 44% of the stock belonged to Isma'il Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt. He was notorious for his profligate spending. The canal was losing money, and an attempt by Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the canal, to raise the tolls had fallen through when the Khedive had threatened to use military force to prevent it, and had also attracted Disraeli's attention. [188] The Khedive governed Egypt under the Ottoman Empire as in the Crimea, the issue of the Canal raised the Eastern Question of what to do about the decaying empire governed from Constantinople. [190] With much of the pre-canal trade and communications between Britain and India passing through the Ottoman Empire, Britain had done its best to prop up the Ottomans against the threat that Russia would take Constantinople, cutting those communications, and giving Russian ships unfettered access to the Mediterranean. The French might also threaten those lines. [191] Britain had had the opportunity to purchase shares in the canal but had declined to do so. [192]

Disraeli, recognising the British interest in the canal, sent the Liberal MP Nathan Rothschild to Paris to enquire about buying de Lesseps's shares. [190] On 14 November 1875, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, Frederick Greenwood, learned from London banker Henry Oppenheim that the Khedive was seeking to sell his shares in the Suez Canal Company to a French firm. Greenwood quickly told Lord Derby, the Foreign Secretary, who notified Disraeli. The Prime Minister moved immediately to secure the shares. On 23 November, the Khedive offered to sell the shares for 100,000,000 francs. [193] Rather than seek the aid of the Bank of England, Disraeli asked Lionel de Rothschild to loan funds. Rothschild did so and took a commission on the deal. The banker's capital was at risk as Parliament could have refused to ratify the transaction. [194] The contract for purchase was signed at Cairo on 25 November and the shares deposited at the British consulate the following day. [193] [195]

Disraeli told the Queen, "it is settled you have it, madam!" [196] The public saw the venture as a daring statement of British dominance of the seas. Sir Ian Malcolm described the Suez Canal share purchase as "the greatest romance of Mr. Disraeli's romantic career". [193] In the following decades, the security of the Suez Canal, as the pathway to India, became a major concern of British foreign policy. Under Gladstone Britain took control of Egypt in 1882. A later Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, described the canal in 1909 as "the determining influence of every considerable movement of British power to the east and south of the Mediterranean". [196]

Royal Titles Act Edit

Although initially curious about Disraeli when he entered Parliament in 1837, Victoria came to detest him over his treatment of Peel. Over time, her dislike softened, especially as Disraeli took pains to cultivate her. He told Matthew Arnold, "Everybody likes flattery and, when you come to royalty, you should lay it on with a trowel". [197] Disraeli's biographer, Adam Kirsch, suggests that Disraeli's obsequious treatment of his queen was part flattery, part belief that this was how a queen should be addressed by a loyal subject, and part awe that a middle-class man of Jewish birth should be the companion of a monarch. [198] By the time of his second premiership, Disraeli had built a strong relationship with Victoria, probably closer to her than any of her Prime Ministers except her first, Lord Melbourne. When Disraeli returned as Prime Minister in 1874 and went to kiss hands, he did so literally, on one knee and, according to Richard Aldous in his book on the rivalry between Disraeli and Gladstone, "for the next six years Victoria and Disraeli would exploit their closeness for mutual advantage." [199]

Victoria had long wished to have an imperial title, reflecting Britain's expanding domain. [200] She was irked when Czar Alexander II held a higher rank than her as an emperor, and was appalled that her daughter, the Prussian Crown Princess, would outrank her when her husband came to the throne. [201] She also saw an imperial title as proclaiming Britain's increased stature in the world. [202] The title "Empress of India" had been used informally with respect to Victoria for some time and she wished to have that title formally bestowed on her. The Queen prevailed upon Disraeli to introduce a Royal Titles Bill, and also told of her intent to open Parliament in person, which during this time she did only when she wanted something from legislators. Disraeli was cautious in response, as careful soundings of MPs brought a negative reaction, and declined to place such a proposal in the Queen's Speech. [203]

Once the desired bill was prepared, Disraeli's handling of it was not adept. He neglected to notify either the Prince of Wales or the Opposition, and was met by irritation from the prince and a full-scale attack from the Liberals. An old enemy of Disraeli, former Liberal Chancellor Robert Lowe, alleged during the debate in the Commons that two previous Prime Ministers had refused to introduce such legislation for the Queen. Gladstone immediately stated that he was not one of them, and the Queen gave Disraeli leave to quote her saying she had never approached a Prime Minister with such a proposal. According to Blake, Disraeli "in a brilliant oration of withering invective proceeded to destroy Lowe", who apologised and never held office again. [204] Disraeli said of Lowe that he was the only person in London with whom he would not shake hands and, "he is in the mud and there I leave him." [205]

Fearful of losing, Disraeli was reluctant to bring the bill to a vote in the Commons, but when he eventually did, it passed with a majority of 75. Once the bill was formally enacted, Victoria began signing her letters "Victoria R & I" (Latin: Regina et Imperatrix, that is, Queen and Empress). [206] According to Aldous, "the unpopular Royal Titles Act, however, shattered Disraeli's authority in the House of Commons". [207]

Balkans and Bulgaria Edit

In July 1875 Serb populations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, then provinces of the Ottoman Empire, rose in revolt against their Turkish masters, alleging religious persecution and poor administration. The following January, Sultan Abdülaziz agreed to reforms proposed by Hungarian statesman Julius Andrássy, but the rebels, suspecting they might win their freedom, continued their uprising, joined by militants in Serbia and Bulgaria. The Turks suppressed the Bulgarian uprising harshly, and when reports of these actions escaped, Disraeli and Derby stated in Parliament that they did not believe them. Disraeli called them "coffee-house babble" and dismissed allegations of torture by the Ottomans since "Oriental people usually terminate their connections with culprits in a more expeditious fashion". [208]

Gladstone, who had left the Liberal leadership and retired from public life, was appalled by reports of atrocities in Bulgaria, and in August 1876, penned a hastily written pamphlet arguing that the Turks should be deprived of Bulgaria because of what they had done there. He sent a copy to Disraeli, who called it "vindictive and ill-written . of all the Bulgarian horrors perhaps the greatest". [209] Gladstone's pamphlet became an immense best-seller and rallied the Liberals to urge that the Ottoman Empire should no longer be a British ally. Disraeli wrote to Lord Salisbury on 3 September, "Had it not been for these unhappy 'atrocities', we should have settled a peace very honourable to England and satisfactory to Europe. Now we are obliged to work from a new point of departure, and dictate to Turkey, who has forfeited all sympathy." [210] In spite of this, Disraeli's policy favoured Constantinople and the territorial integrity of its empire. [211]

Disraeli and the cabinet sent Salisbury as lead British representative to the Constantinople Conference, which met in December 1876 and January 1877. [212] In advance of the conference, Disraeli sent Salisbury private word to seek British military occupation of Bulgaria and Bosnia, and British control of the Ottoman Army. Salisbury ignored these instructions, which his biographer, Andrew Roberts deemed "ludicrous". [213] Nevertheless, the conference failed to reach agreement with the Turks. [214]

Parliament opened in February 1877, with Disraeli now in the Lords as Earl of Beaconsfield. He spoke only once there in the 1877 session on the Eastern Question, stating on 20 February that there was a need for stability in the Balkans, and that forcing Turkey into territorial concessions would do nothing to secure it. The Prime Minister wanted a deal with the Ottomans whereby Britain would temporarily occupy strategic areas to deter the Russians from war, to be returned on the signing of a peace treaty, but found little support in his cabinet, which favoured partition of the Ottoman Empire. As Disraeli, by then in poor health, continued to battle within the cabinet, Russia invaded Turkey on 21 April, beginning the Russo-Turkish War. [215]

Congress of Berlin Edit

The Russians pushed through Ottoman territory and by December 1877 had captured the strategic Bulgarian town of Plevna their march on Constantinople seemed inevitable. The war divided the British, but the Russian success caused some to forget the atrocities and call for intervention on the Turkish side. Others hoped for further Russian successes. The fall of Plevna was a major story for weeks in the newspapers, and Disraeli's warnings that Russia was a threat to British interests in the eastern Mediterranean were deemed prophetic. The jingoistic attitude of many Britons increased Disraeli's political support, and the Queen acted to help him as well, showing her favour by visiting him at Hughenden—the first time she had visited the country home of her Prime Minister since the Melbourne ministry. At the end of January 1878, the Ottoman Sultan appealed to Britain to save Constantinople. Amid war fever in Britain, the government asked Parliament to vote £6,000,000 to prepare the Army and Navy for war. Gladstone opposed the measure, but less than half his party voted with him. Popular opinion was with Disraeli, though some thought him too soft for not immediately declaring war on Russia. [216]

With the Russians close to Constantinople, the Turks yielded and in March 1878, signed the Treaty of San Stefano, conceding a Bulgarian state which would cover a large part of the Balkans. It would be initially Russian-occupied and many feared that it would give them a client state close to Constantinople. Other Ottoman possessions in Europe would become independent additional territory was to be ceded directly to Russia. This was unacceptable to the British, who protested, hoping to get the Russians to agree to attend an international conference which German Chancellor Bismarck proposed to hold at Berlin. The cabinet discussed Disraeli's proposal to position Indian troops at Malta for possible transit to the Balkans [217] and call out reserves. Derby resigned in protest, and Disraeli appointed Salisbury as Foreign Secretary. Amid British preparations for war, the Russians and Turks agreed to discussions at Berlin. [218]

In advance of the meeting, confidential negotiations took place between Britain and Russia in April and May 1878. The Russians were willing to make changes to the big Bulgaria, but were determined to retain their new possessions, Bessarabia in Europe and Batum and Kars on the east coast of the Black Sea. To counterbalance this, Britain required a possession in the Eastern Mediterranean where it might base ships and troops, and negotiated with the Ottomans for the cession of Cyprus. Once this was secretly agreed, Disraeli was prepared to allow Russia's territorial gains. [219]

The Congress of Berlin was held in June and July 1878, the central relationship in it that between Disraeli and Bismarck. In later years, the German chancellor would show visitors to his office three pictures on the wall: "the portrait of my Sovereign, there on the right that of my wife, and on the left, there, that of Lord Beaconsfield". [220] Disraeli caused an uproar in the congress by making his opening address in English, rather than in French, hitherto accepted as the international language of diplomacy. By one account, the British ambassador in Berlin, Lord Odo Russell, hoping to spare the delegates Disraeli's awful French accent, told Disraeli that the congress was hoping to hear a speech in the English tongue by one of its masters. [221]

Disraeli left much of the detailed work to Salisbury, concentrating his efforts on making it as difficult as possible for the broken-up big Bulgaria to reunite. [221] Disraeli did not have things all his own way: he intended that Batum be demilitarised, but the Russians obtained their preferred language, and in 1886, fortified the town. Nevertheless, the Cyprus Convention ceding the island to Britain was announced during the congress, and again made Disraeli a sensation. [222]

Disraeli gained agreement that Turkey should retain enough of its European possessions to safeguard the Dardanelles. By one account, when met with Russian intransigence, Disraeli told his secretary to order a special train to return them home to begin the war. Although Russia yielded, Czar Alexander II later described the congress as "a European coalition against Russia, under Bismarck". [223]

The Treaty of Berlin was signed on 13 July 1878 at the Radziwill Palace in Berlin. [n 20] Disraeli and Salisbury returned home to heroes' receptions at Dover and in London. At the door of 10 Downing Street, Disraeli received flowers sent by the Queen. [226] There, he told the gathered crowd, "Lord Salisbury and I have brought you back peace—but a peace I hope with honour." [227] [n 21] The Queen offered him a dukedom, which he declined, though accepting the Garter, as long as Salisbury also received it. [229] In Berlin, word spread of Bismarck's admiring description of Disraeli, "Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann! " [n 22] [230]

Afghanistan to Zululand Edit

In the weeks after Berlin, Disraeli and the cabinet considered calling a general election to capitalise on the public applause he and Salisbury had received. Parliaments were then for a seven-year term, and it was the custom not to go to the country until the sixth year unless forced to by events. Only four and a half years had passed since the last general election. Additionally, they did not see any clouds on the horizon that might forecast Conservative defeat if they waited. This decision not to seek re-election has often been cited as a great mistake by Disraeli. Blake, however, pointed out that results in local elections had been moving against the Conservatives, and doubted if Disraeli missed any great opportunity by waiting. [231]

As successful invasions of India generally came through Afghanistan, the British had observed and sometimes intervened there since the 1830s, hoping to keep the Russians out. In 1878 the Russians sent a mission to Kabul it was not rejected by the Afghans, as the British had hoped. The British then proposed to send their own mission, insisting that the Russians be sent away. The Viceroy of India Lord Lytton concealed his plans to issue this ultimatum from Disraeli, and when the Prime Minister insisted he take no action, went ahead anyway. When the Afghans made no answer, the British advanced against them in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, and under Lord Roberts easily defeated them. The British installed a new ruler, and left a mission and garrison in Kabul. [232]

British policy in South Africa was to encourage federation between the British-run Cape Colony and Natal, and the Boer republics, the Transvaal (annexed by Britain in 1877) and the Orange Free State. The governor of Cape Colony, Sir Bartle Frere, believing that the federation could not be accomplished until the native tribes acknowledged British rule, made demands on the Zulu and their king, Cetewayo, which they were certain to reject. As Zulu troops could not marry until they had washed their spears in blood, they were eager for combat. Frere did not send word to the cabinet of what he had done until the ultimatum was about to expire. Disraeli and the cabinet reluctantly backed him, and in early January 1879 resolved to send reinforcements. Before they could arrive, on 22 January, a Zulu impi, or army, moving with great speed and stealth, ambushed and destroyed a British encampment in South Africa in the Battle of Isandlwana. Over a thousand British and colonial troops were killed. Word of the defeat did not reach London until 12 February. [233] Disraeli wrote the next day, "the terrible disaster has shaken me to the centre". [234] He reprimanded Frere, but left him in charge, attracting fire from all sides. Disraeli sent General Sir Garnet Wolseley as High Commissioner and Commander in Chief, and Cetewayo and the Zulus were crushed at the Battle of Ulundi on 4 July 1879. [235]

On 8 September 1879 Sir Louis Cavagnari, in charge of the mission in Kabul, was killed with his entire staff by rebelling Afghan soldiers. Roberts undertook a successful punitive expedition against the Afghans over the next six weeks. [236]

1880 election Edit

Gladstone, in the 1874 election, had been returned for Greenwich, finishing second behind a Conservative in the two-member constituency, a result he termed more like a defeat than a victory. In December 1878, he was offered the Liberal nomination at the next election for Edinburghshire, a constituency popularly known as Midlothian. The small Scottish electorate was dominated by two noblemen, the Conservative Duke of Buccleuch and the Liberal Earl of Rosebery. The Earl, a friend of both Disraeli and Gladstone who would succeed the latter after his final term as Prime Minister, had journeyed to the United States to view politics there, and was convinced that aspects of American electioneering techniques could be translated to Britain. On his advice, Gladstone accepted the offer in January 1879, and later that year began his Midlothian campaign, speaking not only in Edinburgh, but across Britain, attacking Disraeli, to huge crowds. [237]

Conservative chances of re-election were damaged by the poor weather, and consequent effects on agriculture. Four consecutive wet summers through 1879 had led to poor harvests. In the past, the farmer had the consolation of higher prices at such times, but with bumper crops cheaply transported from the United States, grain prices remained low. Other European nations, faced with similar circumstances, opted for protection, and Disraeli was urged to reinstitute the Corn Laws. He declined, stating that he regarded the matter as settled. Protection would have been highly unpopular among the newly enfranchised urban working classes, as it would raise their cost of living. Amid an economic slump generally, the Conservatives lost support among farmers. [238]

Disraeli's health continued to fail through 1879. Owing to his infirmities, Disraeli was three-quarters of an hour late for the Lord Mayor's Dinner at the Guildhall in November, at which it is customary that the Prime Minister speaks. Though many commented on how healthy he looked, it took him great effort to appear so, and when he told the audience he expected to speak to the dinner again the following year, attendees chuckled—Gladstone was then in the midst of his campaign. Despite his public confidence, Disraeli recognised that the Conservatives would probably lose the next election, and was already contemplating his Resignation Honours. [239]

Despite this pessimism, Conservatives hopes were buoyed in early 1880 with successes in by-elections the Liberals had expected to win, concluding with victory in Southwark, normally a Liberal stronghold. The cabinet had resolved to wait before dissolving Parliament in early March they reconsidered, agreeing to go to the country as soon as possible. Parliament was dissolved on 24 March the first borough constituencies began voting a week later. [240]

Disraeli took no public part in the electioneering, it being deemed improper for peers to make speeches to influence Commons elections. This meant that the chief Conservatives—Disraeli, Salisbury, and India Secretary Lord Cranbrook—would not be heard from. The election was thought likely to be close. [241] Once returns began to be announced, it became clear that the Conservatives were being decisively beaten. The final result gave the Liberals an absolute majority of about 50. [n 23]

Disraeli refused to cast blame for the defeat, which he understood was likely to be final for him. He wrote to Lady Bradford that it was just as much work to end a government as to form one, without any of the fun. Queen Victoria was bitter at his departure as Prime Minister. Among the honours he arranged before resigning as Prime Minister on 21 April 1880 was one for his private secretary, Montagu Corry, who became Baron Rowton. [245]

Returning to Hughenden, Disraeli brooded over his electoral dismissal, but also resumed work on Endymion, which he had begun in 1872 and laid aside before the 1874 election. The work was rapidly completed and published by November 1880. [246] He carried on a correspondence with Victoria, with letters passed through intermediaries. When Parliament met in January 1881, he served as Conservative leader in the Lords, attempting to serve as a moderating influence on Gladstone's legislation. [247]

Suffering from asthma and gout, Disraeli went out as little as possible, fearing more serious episodes of illness. In March, he fell ill with bronchitis, and emerged from bed only for a meeting with Salisbury and other Conservative leaders on the 26th. As it became clear that this might be his final sickness, friends and opponents alike came to call. Disraeli declined a visit from the Queen, saying, "She would only ask me to take a message to Albert." [248] Almost blind, when he received the last letter from Victoria of which he was aware on 5 April, he held it momentarily, then had it read to him by Lord Barrington, a Privy Councillor. One card, signed "A Workman", delighted its recipient, "Don't die yet, we can't do without you." [249]

Despite the gravity of Disraeli's condition, the doctors concocted optimistic bulletins, for public consumption. The Prime Minister, Gladstone, called several times to enquire about his rival's condition, and wrote in his diary, "May the Almighty be near his pillow." [250] There was intense public interest in the former Prime Minister's struggles for life. Disraeli had customarily taken the sacrament at Easter when this day was observed on 17 April, there was discussion among his friends and family if he should be given the opportunity, but those against, fearing that he would lose hope, prevailed. [251] On the morning of the following day, Easter Monday, he became incoherent, then comatose. [252] Disraeli's last confirmed words before dying at his home at 19 Curzon Street in the early morning of 19 April were "I had rather live but I am not afraid to die". [253] [254] [n 24] The anniversary of Disraeli's death was for some years commemorated in the United Kingdom as Primrose Day.

Despite having been offered a state funeral by Queen Victoria, Disraeli's executors decided against a public procession and funeral, fearing that too large crowds would gather to do him honour. The chief mourners at the service at Hughenden on 26 April were his brother Ralph and nephew Coningsby, to whom Hughenden would eventually pass. Queen Victoria was prostrated with grief, and considered ennobling Ralph or Coningsby as a memorial to Disraeli (without children, his titles became extinct with his death) but decided against it on the ground that their means were too small for a peerage. Protocol forbade her attending Disraeli's funeral (this would not be changed until 1965, when Elizabeth II attended the rites for the former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill) but she sent primroses ("his favourite flowers") to the funeral, and visited the burial vault to place a wreath of china blooms four days later. [255]

Disraeli is buried with his wife in a vault beneath the Church of St Michael and All Angels which stands in the grounds of his home, Hughenden Manor, accessed from the churchyard. There is also a memorial to him in the chancel in the church, erected in his honour by Queen Victoria. His literary executor was his private secretary, Lord Rowton. [256] The Disraeli vault also contains the body of Sarah Brydges Willyams, the wife of James Brydges Willyams of St Mawgan in Cornwall. Disraeli carried on a long correspondence with Mrs. Willyams, writing frankly about political affairs. At her death in 1865, she left him a large legacy, which helped clear up his debts. [257] His will was proved in April 1882 at £84,019 18 s. 7 d. (roughly equivalent to £8,538,009 in 2019). [258] [259] [260]

Disraeli has a memorial in Westminster Abbey. This monument was erected by the nation on the motion of Gladstone in his memorial speech on Disraeli in the House of Commons. Gladstone had absented himself from the funeral, with his plea of the press of public business met with public mockery. His speech was widely anticipated, if only because his dislike for Disraeli was well known, and caused the Prime Minister much worry. In the event, the speech was a model of its kind, in which he avoided comment on Disraeli's politics, while praising his personal qualities. [261]

Disraeli's literary and political career interacted over his lifetime and fascinated Victorian Britain, making him "one of the most eminent figures in Victorian public life", and occasioned a large output of commentary. [262] Critic Shane Leslie noted three decades after his death that "Disraeli's career was a romance such as no Eastern vizier or Western plutocrat could tell. He began as a pioneer in dress and an aesthete of words . Disraeli actually made his novels come true." [263]

Literary Edit

Blake comments that Disraeli "produced an epic poem, unbelievably bad, and a five-act blank verse tragedy, if possible worse. Further he wrote a discourse on political theory and a political biography, the Life of Lord George Bentinck, which is excellent . remarkably fair and accurate." [264] But it is on his novels that Disraeli's literary achievements are generally judged. [265] They have from the outset divided critical opinion. The writer R. W. Stewart observed that there have always been two criteria for judging Disraeli's novels—one political and the other artistic. The critic Robert O'Kell, concurring, writes, "It is after all, even if you are a Tory of the staunchest blue, impossible to make Disraeli into a first-rate novelist. And it is equally impossible, no matter how much you deplore the extravagances and improprieties of his works, to make him into an insignificant one." [265]

Disraeli's early "silver fork" novels Vivian Grey (1826) and The Young Duke (1831) featured romanticised depictions of aristocratic life (despite his ignorance of it) with character sketches of well-known public figures lightly disguised. [266] In some of his early fiction Disraeli also portrayed himself and what he felt to be his Byronic dual nature: the poet and the man of action. [267] His most autobiographical novel was Contarini Fleming (1832), an avowedly serious work that did not sell well. [267] The critic William Kuhn suggests that Disraeli's fiction can be read as "the memoirs he never wrote", revealing the inner life of a politician for whom the norms of Victorian public life appeared to represent a social straitjacket—particularly with regard to what Kuhn sees as the author's "ambiguous sexuality". [268]

Of the other novels of the early 1830s, Alroy is described by Blake as "profitable but unreadable", [269] and The Rise of Iskander (1833), The Infernal Marriage and Ixion in Heaven (1834) made little impact. [270] Henrietta Temple (1837) was Disraeli's next major success. [271] It draws on the events of his affair with Henrietta Sykes to tell the story of a debt-ridden young man torn between a mercenary loveless marriage and a passionate love-at-first-sight for the eponymous heroine. [271] Venetia (1837) was a minor work, written to raise much-needed cash. [272]

In the 1840s Disraeli wrote a trilogy of novels with political themes. Coningsby attacks the evils of the Whig Reform Bill of 1832 and castigates the leaderless conservatives for not responding. Sybil or, The Two Nations (1845) reveals Peel's betrayal over the Corn Laws. These themes are expanded in Tancred (1847). [273] With Coningsby or, The New Generation (1844), Disraeli, in Blake's view, "infused the novel genre with political sensibility, espousing the belief that England's future as a world power depended not on the complacent old guard, but on youthful, idealistic politicians." [266] Sybil or, The Two Nations was less idealistic than Coningsby the "two nations" of its sub-title referred to the huge economic and social gap between the privileged few and the deprived working classes. The last was Tancred or, The New Crusade (1847), promoting the Church of England's role in reviving Britain's flagging spirituality. [266] Disraeli often wrote about religion, for he was a strong promoter of the Church of England. He was troubled by the growth of elaborate rituals in the late 19th century, such as the use of incense and vestments, and heard warnings to the effect that the ritualists were going to turn control of the Church of England over to the Pope. He consequently was a strong supporter of the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 which allowed the archbishops to go to court to stop the ritualists. [274]

Disraeli's last completed novels were Lothair (1870) and Endymion (1880). Lothair was "Disraeli's ideological Pilgrim's Progress", [275] It tells a story of political life with particular regard to the roles of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. It reflected anti-Catholicism of the sort that was popular in Britain, and which fueled support for Italian unification ("Risorgimento"). [276] Endymion, despite having a Whig as hero, is a last exposition of the author's economic policies and political beliefs. [277] Disraeli continued to the last to pillory his enemies in barely disguised caricatures: the character St Barbe in Endymion is widely seen as a parody of Thackeray, who had offended Disraeli more than thirty years earlier by lampooning him in Punch as "Codlingsby". [278] [279] [n 25] Disraeli left an unfinished novel in which the priggish central character, Falconet, is unmistakably a caricature of Gladstone. [280]

Political Edit

In the years after Disraeli's death, as Salisbury began his reign of more than twenty years over the Conservatives, the party emphasised the late leader's "One Nation" views, that the Conservatives at root shared the beliefs of the working classes, with the Liberals the party of the urban élite. Disraeli had, for example, stressed the need to improve the lot of the urban labourer. The memory of Disraeli was used by the Conservatives to appeal to the working classes, with whom he was said to have had a rapport. [281] This aspect of his policies has been re-evaluated by historians in the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1972 B H Abbott stressed that it was not Disraeli but Lord Randolph Churchill who invented the term "Tory democracy", though it was Disraeli who made it an essential part of Conservative policy and philosophy. [282] In 2007 Parry wrote, "The tory democrat myth did not survive detailed scrutiny by professional historical writing of the 1960s [which] demonstrated that Disraeli had very little interest in a programme of social legislation and was very flexible in handling parliamentary reform in 1867." [283] Despite this, Parry sees Disraeli, rather than Peel, as the founder of the modern Conservative party. [284] The Conservative politician and writer Douglas Hurd wrote in 2013, "[Disraeli] was not a one-nation Conservative—and this was not simply because he never used the phrase. He rejected the concept in its entirety." [285]

Disraeli's enthusiastic propagation of the British Empire has also been seen as appealing to working class voters. Before his leadership of the Conservative Party, imperialism was the province of the Liberals, most notably Palmerston, with the Conservatives murmuring dissent across the aisle. Disraeli made the Conservatives the party that most loudly supported both the Empire and military action to assert its primacy. This came about in part because Disraeli's own views stemmed that way, in part because he saw advantage for the Conservatives, and partially in reaction against Gladstone, who disliked the expense of empire. Blake argued that Disraeli's imperialism "decisively orientated the Conservative party for many years to come, and the tradition which he started was probably a bigger electoral asset in winning working-class support during the last quarter of the century than anything else". [286] Some historians have commented on a romantic impulse behind Disraeli's approach to Empire and foreign affairs: Abbott writes, "To the mystical Tory concepts of Throne, Church, Aristocracy and People, Disraeli added Empire." [287] Others have identified a strongly pragmatic aspect to his policies. Gladstone's biographer Philip Magnus contrasted Disraeli's grasp of foreign affairs with that of Gladstone, who "never understood that high moral principles, in their application to foreign policy, are more often destructive of political stability than motives of national self-interest." [288] In Parry's view, Disraeli's foreign policy "can be seen as a gigantic castle in the air (as it was by Gladstone), or as an overdue attempt to force the British commercial classes to awaken to the realities of European politics." [289]

During his lifetime Disraeli's opponents, and sometimes even his friends and allies, questioned whether he sincerely held the views he propounded, or whether they were adopted by him as essential to one who sought to spend his life in politics, and were mouthed by him without conviction. Lord John Manners, in 1843 at the time of Young England, wrote, "could I only satisfy myself that D'Israeli believed all that he said, I should be more happy: his historical views are quite mine, but does he believe them?" [290] Blake (writing in 1966) suggested that it is no more possible to answer that question now than it was then. [291] Nevertheless, Paul Smith, in his journal article on Disraeli's politics, argues that Disraeli's ideas were coherently argued over a political career of nearly half a century, and "it is impossible to sweep them aside as a mere bag of burglar's tools for effecting felonious entry to the British political pantheon." [290]

Stanley Weintraub, in his biography of Disraeli, points out that his subject did much to advance Britain towards the 20th century, carrying one of the two great Reform Acts of the 19th despite the opposition of his Liberal rival, Gladstone. "He helped preserve constitutional monarchy by drawing the Queen out of mourning into a new symbolic national role and created the climate for what became 'Tory democracy'. He articulated an imperial role for Britain that would last into World War II and brought an intermittently self-isolated Britain into the concert of Europe." [293]

Frances Walsh comments on Disraeli's multifaceted public life:

The debate about his place in the Conservative pantheon has continued since his death. Disraeli fascinated and divided contemporary opinion he was seen by many, including some members of his own party, as an adventurer and a charlatan and by others as a far-sighted and patriotic statesman. As an actor on the political stage he played many roles: Byronic hero, man of letters, social critic, parliamentary virtuoso, squire of Hughenden, royal companion, European statesman. His singular and complex personality has provided historians and biographers with a particularly stiff challenge. [294]

Historical writers have often played Disraeli and Gladstone against each other as great rivals. [295] Roland Quinault, however, cautions us not to exaggerate the confrontation:

they were not direct antagonists for most of their political careers. Indeed initially they were both loyal to the Tory party, the Church and the landed interest. Although their paths diverged over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and later over fiscal policy more generally, it was not until the later 1860s that their differences over parliamentary reform, Irish and Church policy assumed great partisan significance. Even then their personal relations remained fairly cordial until their dispute over the Eastern Question in the later 1870s. [296]

The UK’s five greatest prime ministers

Legendary former British leaders Winston Churchill (L) and Clement Attlee&nbsp

The UK is facing an uncertain future as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt battle to claim the Tory leadership - and with it, the keys to No. 10.

As the nation prepares for the onset of a new political era, many commentators are looking back over that of Theresa May. The Guardian’s Owen Jones argues that May is “the worst prime minister – on their own terms – since Lord North’s reign in the late 18th century, when the US colonies declared their independence”.

Many other critics agree, citing her disastrous decision to hold a snap election in 2017 and mishandling of Brexit negotiations. Indeed, an unnamed Tory backbencher told Sky News that “every passing day she remains as prime minister, she is seizing from John Major the mantle of the worst prime minister in living memory”.

Amid all this talk of legacies, The Week takes a timely look back at five former British leaders whose reigns are widely - if sometimes controversially - viewed as having changed the country for the better:

1. Clement Attlee (Labour, 1945-1951)

When it comes to lasting legacies, few British politicians can match the pedigree of Clement Attlee and his radical welfare reforms, which remain vital pillars of British society.

Attlee, who died in 1967, was voted the most successful British PM of the last century in a 2004 survey conducted by Ipsos MORI and the University of Leeds. “Respondents were asked to give their views on the greatest domestic and foreign policy successes and failures of the 20th century, and the majority of those responses singled out the Attlee government’s welfare state reforms and the creation of the NHS as the key 20th century domestic policy achievements,” the survey report says.

Attlee also claimed the top spot in two subsequent surveys by the university, in 2010 and 2016.

Dick Leonard of the Fabian Society, Britain’s oldest socialist think-tank, credits the Attlee government with transforming Britain for good. “It created the welfare state, including the NHS, rebuilt the ruined economy, nationalised a series of industries, whose record was a great deal better than it has been credited with, gave freedom to India, and played a vital role in the creation of Nato,” Leonard says.

2. Tony Blair (Labour, 1997-2007)

During most of his term, it seemed unfathomable that Tony Blair would leave office as one of the most controversial UK politicians of the 21st century.

After taking power in the largest landslide in British electoral history, he set about revitalising the sluggish post-Thatcher economy, and introduced the minimum wage, before enacting a series of foreign policy decisions that initially enhanced but eventually tarnished his reputation, in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq.

Given that record, it is a “great myth” that Blair didn’t achieve anything in office, insists GQ. “It’s not just Northern Ireland and the minimum wage: he left a vast legacy. Civil partnerships. Bank of England independence. The Welsh Assembly. The Scottish Parliament. A mayor of London. A plunging crime rate. Even abroad, his brand of liberal interventionism in Sierra Leone and Kosovo was a success. He is a hero to Kosovan Albanians, many of whom have named their children Tonibler in his honour,” the magazine says.

But as the BBC points out, his extremely divisive decision to intervene militarily in Iraq has “come to dominate the Blair legacy to such an extent that many of his notable achievements. are doomed to shelter under its shadow”.

3. Margaret Thatcher (Conservative, 1979-1990)

© Richard Baker 2007. All rights reserved.

Perhaps the most polarising PM in British history, Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is that of free-market policies including trade liberalisation, deregulation, sweeping privatisation, breaking the power of the unions, individualism and the creation of an “enterprise culture” - an ideology that has come to be known as “Thatcherism”.

The former leader, who died in 2013, sought to impose a “creed of thrift, of self-reliance, of aspiration, of liberty in the purest sense”, and of “unswerving, ironclad patriotism – seen most obviously in her decision to launch a task force to reclaim the Falkland Islands, when so many siren voices suggested she let the junta’s aggression stand”, says The Daily Telegraph.

However, her boot-strap policies and harsh attitude toward striking miners has made her one of the most hated politicians in UK history among certain communities.

“She destroyed too many good things in society, and created too many bad ones, then left a social and moral vacuum in which the selfishly rich and unimaginatively fortunate could too easily destroy still more of what they don’t need and can’t see that everyone else does need,” author Emma Darwin has argued.

Nonetheless, Thatcher remains a towering figure, and an icon for Conservatives and free-trade enthusiasts the world over.

4. Winston Churchill (Conservative, 1940-1945 and 1951-1955)

Repeatedly voted the greatest Briton of all time, Churchill is almost certainly the most iconic British PM, according to the BBC.

“The case for him is a powerful one, of course,” the broadcaster adds. “He was first a government minister in 1908, and occupied most of the top jobs in politics during half a century. He finally retired in 1955, having served as prime minister for a total of nine years.

“But it was his extraordinary leadership in WWII that marked him out.”

However, Churchill’s reputation has been tarnished by increasing scrutiny in recent years of his relationship with British India. The legendary Tory, who died in 1965, considered independence leader Mahatma Ghandi a threat to the British Empire, and has been accused of triggered a devastating famine in Bengal in 1943 through large-scale exports of food from India. Churchill has also been criticised for his tough attitudes on unions and workers rights, including a notorious incident in which soldiers were deployed in response to strikes in Tonypandy in South Wales during his tenue as home secretary.

5. David Lloyd George (Liberal, 1916-1922)

David Lloyd George, the MP for Caernarfon Boroughs, had already served as chancellor, minister of munitions and secretary of state for war during the First World War by the time he became PM in 1916. He was the first and only Welshman to hold the office and is the only British leader to have spoken Welsh as his first language.

As chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, who died in 1945, oversaw the introduction of many reforms which “laid the foundations of the modern welfare state”, says the North Wales Daily Post. But his biggest achievement came during his tenure as PM, when he played a major role at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that reordered Europe after the defeat of the Central Powers.

Indeed, Lloyd George was “acclaimed as the man who had won the War”, as well as leaving a positive social legacy for post-war Britain, says the UK government’s history portal.

From Walpole to Johnson: lessons from the 300-year history of the British prime minister

Three centuries after its inception, Sir Anthony Seldon charts how the office of prime minister has defied hostile monarchs, a scandal-hungry media and two world wars to become the beating heart of Britain’s body politic

This competition is now closed

Published: June 8, 2021 at 2:01 pm

The history of the British prime minister, 300 years old in April 2021, is riddled with mysteries, in large part because no one has joined together all the dots. It is nearly 50 years since someone tried, when historian Robert Blake wrote a book that discusses the office and its holders going back to the beginning.

We have biographers who dive down deep shafts into the ground to mine everything about an individual prime minister, but sometimes know little about who came before and after. History has become segmented by period and specialism. Some know a great deal about the early 18th century, or the mid-19th century, about economic or cultural history, but few take the long view. Rare are historians like Jeremy Black, or journalists like Daniel Finkelstein, who have a rich understanding of the entire 300 years of British prime ministers.

In place of a wide horizon, we have gone in for polls, plenty of them, ranking prime ministers from “first” to “last”, as if they were artists whose work we can see now, or footballers who have scored a given number of goals. We attempt to determine a prime minister’s “greatness”. But great at what? Everyone knows about Winston Churchill’s achievements. But what about William Pitt the Elder (PM from 1766–68) or Earl Grey (1830–34), both of whom were considerable figures. Polls are fun but we should not treat them as a substitute for serious analysis.

In The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister, the book I wrote to coincide with the April anniversary, I have sought to answer seven questions – and I’ll attempt to do so here. They are:

  1. Why did the office emerge when it did in 1721, when Robert Walpole became Britain’s first prime minister?
  2. How has it survived for 300 years, the longest lasting democratic office in the modern world?
  3. Is the job that Walpole was performing in 1721 the same as Boris Johnson in 2021?
  4. Who have been the best prime ministers, and why?
  5. When did the prime minister take over from the monarch as the most powerful figure in Britain, and from the foreign secretary as the key figure conducting foreign policy?
  6. Why has the chancellor of the Exchequer emerged as the biggest challenger to the authority of the prime minister?
  7. How might the office of prime minister, and No 10, be strengthened as it enters its fourth century?

The first prime minister

So why did the office emerge in 1721? When King George I asked Walpole to be First Lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer in April 1721, no one at the time saw it as a major constitutional innovation. No one used the term “prime minister”, except as a term of abuse (because it seemed to usurp royal prerogative).

It was to take two centuries before the office became a formalised part of the British constitution. Some historians have denied that 1721 was a significant milestone at all. This is understandable, but they are wrong to do so. Something of significant historical importance happened then, even if not apparent to contemporaries for many years.

Some see the office of prime minister dating back long before 1721. Chief ministers to the monarch had been strutting the corridors of power since the days of Dunstan, a powerful bishop who advised several English kings in the 10th century.

In the 16th century, Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII, and William and Robert Cecil under Elizabeth I, had some of the attributes of the prime minister as the job emerged. They were clearly pre-eminent over all other figures in privy council and court. But they differed from the prime minister because their power rested wholly upon the monarch. By the mid-17th century, Oliver Cromwell was drawing his power from his command of the army. But the office that emerged after 1721 derived its authority from the monarch and parliament. The latter was critical to his powerbase, as Walpole understood.

It took the execution of Charles I in 1649, the Interregnum, then Restoration in 1660, and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 to pave the way to the prime minister, as opposed to the chief minister. There was nothing inevitable about the emergence of the office. As the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch reminds us, were it not for the imposition of a Scottish king (James VI and I), a Dutch king (William III and II) and then the Hanoverians, the future of the constitution could have been very different.

A series of Acts of Parliament after 1689 were all important in ensuring that Britain was to develop a constitutional rather than an absolute monarch, with parliament to meet every year, elections initially every three then every seven years, and the king dependent upon parliament for revenue. This required the king to have a figure in parliament who he could trust to ensure his legislation and financial bills passed.

If it hadn’t been for the infamous South Sea Bubble in 1720–21 (when the collapse of the South Sea Company stock ruined thousands of investors), the office might still not have emerged. George I, who became king in 1714, was heavily implicated in the affair, and he turned to the wily Walpole to steer and stabilise the country.

Why the role of prime minister survived

The survival of the office, our second question, was far from certain. A moment of high peril came in 1727, when King George was succeeded by his son George II, who turned to one of Walpole’s rivals, Spencer Compton. Only when he proved incapable of commanding parliament did the second George turn back to Walpole, who cleverly exploited his position, not least ingratiating himself with the king’s wife. Robert Walpole was nothing if not a seductive manipulator of people and money.

When Walpole was ousted from office in 1742, the position was more firmly embedded in the constitution, not least because he survived for 21 years, still the longest spell in the hot seat for a British PM. But it was to be
another 40 years, and the arrival of William Pitt the Younger as prime minister, before the office truly stabilised. It is, to a large extent, thanks to Pitt’s many qualities as a leader that the position of prime minster has survived its first 300 years.

Between Walpole and Pitt, the power of the nascent office of prime minister was threatened by the accession to the throne in 1760 of George III. Britain now had a monarch who wanted to claw back authority from parliament and politicians, to appoint the First Lord and subordinate ministers at will, to be the dominant voice in cabinet and to control policy.

We see this most clearly in the American War of Independence, when it was the king, and not Prime Minister Lord North, who drove the belligerent policy forward. The loss of the 13 colonies was a profound blow not just to Britain but to George himself, who seriously considered abdicating.

For the next serious military conflict, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, it was William Pitt in the driving seat, not George. The king’s bouts of mental illness, and increasing fatigue, and his withdrawal from office in 1811, was another key moment in the emergence of the prime minister. The growing influence of political parties from the 1830s further consolidated the position of the prime minister, as the political head of their party. There was to be no going back.

The genius of the landmark holders of the office was constantly to update the position of the prime minister within the body politic, and strengthen the powers of No 10 and the Cabinet Office, formed by Lloyd George in December 1916. The fact that no one has launched a successful invasion of mainland Britain since 1688, that there was no revolution, nor civil war (all of which would have swept the office aside), all counted. Loss of a major war might have done for the office of PM: had Britain been defeated in the First World War, the monarchy might have fallen, and quite probably the prime minister.

The survival of the office is all the more remarkable considering the profound changes that the role of prime minister has experienced. Walpole never visited Bristol, Manchester or Leeds, still less Wales or Scotland. Norfolk was his limit. He communicated and travelled at the speed of human legs and horses’ hooves. Today, Boris Johnson travels almost at the speed of sound, and communicates at the speed of light. The coming of the telegraph, telephone, electricity, the railway, cars, jets and internet all profoundly changed the life of the prime minister.

Johnson and Walpole

So, given all the changes, is it still the same office, our third question? Walpole and Johnson have much in common. Like Walpole, Johnson is a chancer, who came to office on the back of high-stakes risks. Like his predecessor, on assuming the role, Johnson’s primary task was to remain in office, and see off challengers, who were plentiful. Control of the media, in its very different forms, was and is a principal challenge and frustration for both Walpole and Johnson.

Johnson is First Lord of the Treasury, and ultimately responsible for the national finances and solvency. He is the nation’s leader, tasked with keeping the country safe from threats abroad and within its own frontiers. The population looks to him, as well as to the monarch, for leadership and national unity. Again, these were all challenges faced by Britain’s first prime minister in the 1720s and 30s.

The best and the worst

But which prime ministers have met these challenges most successfully? Of all our seven questions, that is surely the one that is asked most often. As opposed to the parlour game of picking the best and worst prime ministers, it is surely better to place prime ministers into different categories. “Agenda-changer” prime ministers made an enduring mark on the office and on policy, such that the successors either tried to be like them, or deliberately unlike them, but none were able to escape that shadow. They held the union together and enhanced its standing abroad. Only eight match this high standard: Walpole himself, Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel, Lord Palmerston, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. That means that in the last 70 years, there’s only been one such figure.

“Major influencers” come next, all of whom made a powerful impact on the country, like Winston Churchill, William Pitt the Elder, Benjamin Disraeli, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, but who left little enduring mark on the office. “Stabiliser prime ministers” (such as the Earl of Derby and John Major) all served well, but, in part because of the lack of opportunity, such as a war or major disruption, or lack of talent, didn’t significantly shift the dial.

“Noble” failures are leaders of integrity and ability, who signally failed to achieve their mission, like Neville Chamberlain and Theresa May. “Ignoble” failures include Lord Melbourne (who spent far too much time fawning over Queen Victoria, and not enough trying to improve the lot of his fellow countrymen), and Anthony Eden, who shamed himself and the country over Suez in 1956.

Finally, there’s a group of 12 who served for a year or less. This group includes some (like Lord Canning, who lasted just 119 days before dying) who could well have become significant prime ministers. So, too, could Spencer Perceval, assassinated after just three years, the only prime minister to suffer that fate.

Prime minsters, the Crown and the chancellor

As to why the prime minister took over from the monarch (our fifth question), this was a process that unfolded progressively over the centuries. Their position was immeasurably stronger relative to the monarchy in 1901 when Victoria died than it had been in 1837 when she assumed the throne.

The growth of representative democracy was critical to legitimising the prime minister. Yet to dismiss the power and influence of the monarchy today – especially Elizabeth II, the best-known figure and the most photographed in the world – would be a mistake. The monarch is a much stronger symbol of national unity across the four nations, and throughout the Commonwealth than the political and transitory prime minister –
a fact that’s been evidenced on numerous occasions during the Covid-19 crisis.

Over the past three centuries, the British foreign secretary has gradually lost power to the head of government. Technology has made such a development all but inevitable. By the time of the First World War, the prime minister could follow in real time and direct operations on the battlefield in a way that Pitt the Younger and Lord Liverpool could never have done 100 years earlier. For decades now, the prime minister has merely had to pick up the phone to speak to the president of the United States and other key global figures.

While the foreign secretary has fallen in power, the chancellor of the Exchequer (our sixth question) has seen his (it always has been a man) power wax. Since the 1980s, when Nigel Lawson was chancellor, they have increasingly challenged, threatened and ignored the prime minister. Tony Blair’s premiership would have been utterly different if he had not been constantly blocked by Gordon Brown as chancellor, as Theresa May’s would have been had it not been for her chancellor, Philip Hammond.

The outlook for prime ministers of the future

Every prime minister since 1945 has left the building at a time not of their own choosing, through election defeat, cabinet revolt or (as was the case with Harold Wilson in 1976) ill-health. None left with their agendas completed. What might then be done to strengthen the office of prime minister, and No 10 (our final question), as we enter the fourth century?

The prime minister and senior posts in No 10 have been overwhelmingly white, middle-class, male and from the south-east of England. Walpole and Johnson studied in the same classrooms, slept in the same bedrooms, and played in the same fields at Eton. No 10 has been full of cronies, with open selection criteria rejected in favour of mates being brought in looking and sounding like the prime minister. More women, people from BAME backgrounds, and people with regional accents are urgently needed.

Prime ministers have – for much of the office’s 300-year history – been vastly overworked, with little time for parliament, visiting the four nations, meeting people, going to the theatre, or even seeing the country at play.

We expect so much of them, expectations that they themselves encourage, not least with their hyperbolic statements on the doorstep when they enter the building. Disappointment is inevitable. But change is needed. The frequently impressive record of the German chancellor since 1945 shows how different it could be.

We need to create the opportunity for the often highly talented figures who rise to the top of the British political system to leave No 10 on their final day, not in tears, but with their heads held as high as they were on their first entry.

Anthony Seldon’s is the author of The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister ( CUP, 2021). His BBC Radio 4 series The Prime Minister at 300 is airing now and available via BBC Sounds

Reviews & endorsements

'A tremendous, magisterial book, informed and underpinned by brilliant historical and political insight. A triumph.' William Boyd, author of Trio, Restless and Any Human Heart

'Anthony Seldon enriches our understanding of what it takes to run Britain, with some intriguing ideas for improving the Premiership.' Camilla Cavendish, former Head of No. 10 Policy Unit, and author of Extra Time: Ten Lessons for Living Longer Better

'A brilliant, panoramic survey of the fifty-five individuals who have been prime minister since Robert Walpole - and their families too. The most moving sentence is right at the end. On the evening of David Cameron's resignation, his daughter asks him at bedtime: 'Daddy, when are we going back home?' By then, you feel you know many of the holders of the office of prime minister intimately, how they changed it and it and how it changed them. A must read.' Andrew Adonis, former transport minister, education minister and Head of No. 10 Policy Unit, and author of Ernest Bevin, Labour's Churchill

'Three hundred years of one of the world's most difficult jobs is worth some reflection - and there is no better way to go about that than to read this excellent book. With a rich knowledge of our prime ministers and the eye of an expert historian, Anthony Seldon has produced a stimulating and enjoyable study of the unceasing development of their power and role. There is much here to inform everyone from the general reader to the political addict, and some important indicators of what the future may hold.' William Hague, former Leader of the Opposition, First Secretary of State, Foreign Secretary, and Leader of the House of Commons

'A fascinating review of the role of the prime minister and those who have filled it. How were they constrained, how did they change the role, and how did it change them and the country. Anthony Seldon also suggests some improvements including making No. 10 more streamlined, agile and diverse and ensuring that prime ministers and those around them understand the role. Reading this book would give them a good start.' Jacqui Smith, former Home Secretary

'Anthony Seldon has a brilliant ability to capture the humanity of prime ministers as well as their role in history which is why this fascinating account is so readable as well as authoritative. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand both how Downing Street works and the extraordinary characters of those who have lived there.' Rachel Sylvester, The Times

'A good guide to the constitutional position of the Sovereign's Minister.' Simon Heffer, Daily Telegraph

'… an intelligent and insightful account of the evolution of the role.' Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer (Book of the Week)

British Prime Ministers List

Each Prime Minister is listed in chronological order with an interactive link to the periods where we have related information and an overview to that period in history. This will link to a selection of overviews, profiles and biographies of some of the more notable characters. Simply click on the Prime Ministers name where you see a link and you will be taken to the related article. Additional and key members of the House of Lords and the history of the political leadership of the particular historic periods and how they relate to our historic themes will also be covered, so worth a look there too. Launching this list in 2015, on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Winston Churchill, seems fitting.

“The main essentials of a successful Prime Minister are sleep and a sense of history”
Harold Wilson Prime Minister 1964 – 1970 and 1974 – 1976

How long has Britain had what is called a prime minister?

We take for granted that we are led in Government by a Prime Minister but the idea of a Prime Minister was not a status created, more it was one that evolved after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. There was a need for spokesperson, a head who could deliver control of the Parliament for the monarch. It was a term used in the first place to insult someone that was felt to have got above their station, after the monarch was thought to be the ‘prime’ minister.

Robert Walpole was First Lord of the Treasury and found himself in the extended role of being that prime spokesman but the idea of such a role was still not considered justifiable. For decades after Walpole, the post of Prime Minister was still not established but rather assumed that those holding the post of First Lord of the Treasury would also be Prime Minister.

By the end of the 18th century the office of Prime Minister was accepted.

Astonishingly, it was only in 1885 that the list of government ministers printed in Hansard, the official record of parliamentary debates, first used the title Prime Minister and the first statutory reference to the Prime Minister came in the Chequers Estate Act 1917. In 1977 public recognition of the existence of a ‘Prime Minister’s Office’ was entered in the Civil Service Yearbook.

Whilst the idea of a Prime Minister has been accepted, the role has remained largely informal, it’s powers being a matter of convention rather than law. It is expected that the Prime Minister will take the lead on significant matters of state.

List of British Prime Ministers

The Prime Ministers of Britain (technically of the United Kingdom) are the Head of Government in that nation, though the Head of State is the reigning King or Queen. In modern British government and politics, the Queen is said to “reign, but she does not rule,” meaning that while she is the Queen, and has certain powers, all true political power rests with the elected representatives of the people. To this end, voters in Britain select, in elections, Members of Parliament to form the legislative branch of government (in the United States, the legislative branch is Congress). The political party with the most members in Parliament (or a coalition of parties if none has a majority), selects the Prime Minister, who becomes the leader of the government.

While the term Prime Minister was used informally since at least the 1730s, it was only first used officially by the government in a document in 1878 in a document signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Historians consider Robert Walpole to be the first Prime Minister who became head of government in 1721. The current British Prime Minister is Boris Johnson, who won election in 2019.

Below is the list of British Prime Ministers, with the years they served, the political party to which they belonged, and which monarch reigned during their time in office. Several Prime Ministers served more than once.

Sir Robert Walpole (1721-1742) -Whig Party-During the reigns of King George I and George II

Spencer Compton, the 1st Earl of Wilmington (1742-1743)-Whig Party -During the reigns of King George II

Henry Pelham (1743-1754)-Whig Party -During the reign of King George II

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle (1754-1756) -Whig Party -During the reign of King George II

William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire (1756-1757) -Whig Party -During the reign of King George II

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle (1757-1762) -Whig Party -During the reigns of King George II and George III

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1762-1763) -Tory Party -During the reign of King George III

George Grenville (1763-1765) -Whig Party -During the reign of King George III

Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1765-1766) -Whig Party -During the reign of King George III

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham (1766-1768) -Whig Party -During the reign of King George III

Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (1768-1770) -Whig Party -During the reign of King George III

Frederick North, Lord North (1770-1782) -Tory Party -During the reign of King George III **Prime Minister during most of the American Revolution. Lost the American colonies.

Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1782) -Whig Party -During the reign of King George III [PM for only 97 days]

William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (1782-1783) -Whig Party -During the reign of King George III

William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland (1783) -Whig Party -During the reign of King George III

William Pitt the Younger (1783-1801) -Tory Party -During the reign of King George III **Prime Minister during the start of the wars against France in the French Revolutionary Wars and the first part of the Napoleonic Wars.

Henry Addington (1801-1804) -Tory Party -During the reign of King George III **Prime Minister during part of the Napoleonic Wars

William Pitt the Younger (1804-1806) -Tory Party -During the reign of King George III **Prime Minister during part of the Napoleonic Wars

William Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville (1806-1807) -Whig Party -During the reign of King George III **Prime Minister during part of the Napoleonic Wars

William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland (1807-1809) -Tory Party -During the reign of King George III **Prime Minister during part of the Napoleonic Wars

Spencer Perceval (1809-1812) -Tory Party -During the reign of King George III **Prime Minister during part of the Napoleonic Wars. Perceval was assassinated in 1812 in part due to his harsh domestic policies in support of the war effort.

Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1812-1827) -Tory Party -During the reigns of Kings George III and George IV **Prime Minister during the last part of the Napoleonic Wars and the whole of the War of 1812 with the United States, though the lead up to that war was under Perceval's government. Under Jenkinson, Britain took part in the post-Napoleonic Wars Congress of Vienna that reshaped the map of Europe.

George Canning (1827) -Tory Party -During the reign of King George IV

Frederick John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich (1827-1828) -Tory Party -During the reign of King George IV

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1828-1830) -Tory Party -During the reigns of Kings George IV and William IV

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1830-1834) -Whig Party -During the reign of King William IV

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (1834) -Whig Party -During the reign of King William IV

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1834) -Tory Party -During the reign of King William IV [PM for only 23 days-considered a caretaker government]

Sir Robert Peel (1834-1835) -Conservative Party -During the reign of King William IV

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (1835-1841) -Whig Party -During the reign of King William IV

Sir Robert Peel (1841-1846) -Conservative Party -During the reign of King William IV and Queen Victoria

Lord John Russell (1846-1852) -Whig Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby (1852) -Conservative Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen (1852-1855) -Conservative Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria **Prime Minister who led Britain into the Crimean War

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1855-1858) -Whig Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby (1858-1859) -Conservative Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1859-1865) -Liberal Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell (1865-1866) -Liberal Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby (1866-1868) -Conservative Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

Benjamin Disraeli (1868) -Conservative Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

William Ewart Gladstone (1868-1874) -Liberal Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield (1874-1880) -Conservative Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

William Ewart Gladstone (1880-1885) -Liberal Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1885-1885) -Conservative Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

William Ewart Gladstone (1885-1886) -Liberal Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1886-1892) -Conservative Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

William Ewart Gladstone (1892-1894) -Liberal Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1894-1895) -Liberal Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1895-1902) -Conservative Party -During the reign of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII **Prime Minister during the first part of the Second Boer War (AKA the South African War)

Arthur Balfour (1902-1905) -Conservative Party -During the reign of King Edward VII **Prime Minister during last part of the Second Boer War

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1905-1908) -Liberal Party -During the reign of King Edward VII

H. H. Asquith (1908-1916) -Liberal Party -During the reigns of King Edward VII and George V **PM during first part of World War One

David Lloyd George (1916-1922) -Liberal Party -During the reign of King George V **PM during last part of World War One and the Irish War

Bonar Law (1922-1923) -Conservative Party -During the reign of King George V

Stanley Baldwin (1923-1924) -Conservative Party -During the reign of King George V

Ramsay MacDonald (1924) -Labour Party -During the reign of King George V

Stanley Baldwin (1924-1929) -Conservative Party -During the reign of King George V

Ramsay MacDonald (1929-1935) -Labour Party/National Labour Party -During the reign of King George V

Who is your favorite British Prime Minister?

British Conservative Party politician and Prime Minsiter of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher (1925 - 2013) at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, UK, 10th October 1980. (Photo by Colin Davey/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Image: Getty Images

British politics. Drama, comedy, and horror, all mixed into one entity. With Brexit still dominating the headlines, this doesn't look set to change anytime soon.

Throughout the years, we have seen a range of British Prime Ministers. Some have had real success, while some have been ridiculed and derided by the British public.

It is rare, however, that we will ever reach a consensus on just who is the best British Prime Minister.

In order to make up our minds, let's take a look at some of the most prominent PM's over the years.

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Winston Churchill

Winston Churchillis renowned worldwide for his leadership throughout WW2, where he led the United Kingdom as it faced perhaps the biggest challenge ever seen by the country. Despite his successes, Churchill was a controversial figure and is still disliked by many to this day due to his views when it came to issues such as race and imperialism. Needless to say, Churchill remains one of the most popular leaders of the United kingdom, and his legacy lives on today.

April 1939: British Conservative politician Winston Churchill. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Margaret Thatcher

Known as 'The Iron Lady', Margaret Thatcher is to this day known as one of the most hard-nosed Prime Ministers we have seen. She divided opinion with her controversial treatment of the mining community and had less than favorable relationships with trade unions. Thatcher narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by the IRA in 1984, which ended up endearing her to an even larger fervent support, who admired her resilience in the face of danger. As disliked as she is loathed, Thatcher certainly divided opinion in the UK.

October 1985: British prime minister Margaret Thatcher looking pensive at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Tony Blair

Tony Blair was PM from 1997 to 2007 - a long time indeed. Blair was a charismatic and personable leader, who ushered in a new era for the United Kingdom and the Labor Party. Tony Blair is perhaps best remembered for the role he played in strengthening the relationship between the UK and the USA. He struck up a friendship with then-president George Bush, and the two created an often-maligned foreign policy that would go on to accent both of their careers. While Blair has been criticized for his leadership during this time, polls indicate history will remember the Labor man well.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair addresses the media after attending the European People's Party (EPP) Group Bureau meeting at Druids Glen on May 12, 2017 in Wicklow, Ireland. Brexit and negotiating objectives will top the agenda at the meeting alongside the unique circumstances regarding the hard border issue between northern and southern Ireland, the only physical border between the United Kingdom and Europe. Mr Blair has signaled a return to politics in light of the Brexit vote. The meeting also features European Commission Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee served as PM from 1945-1951, and regularly tops polls when it comes to ranking Prime Ministers. An unlikely Prime Minister due to his unassuming and reserved public figure, Attlee took over leadership following Winston Churchill's resignation. His tenure as PM was marked by his success in transition Britain from a postwar economy, to a successful and peaceful nation, which gained him praise worldwide. Margaret Thatcher described Attlee as 'all substance and no show'.

Future Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee (1883 - 1967), circa 1930. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Theresa May

Poor old Theresa May. While she will not be remembered fondly, and will almost certainly be perpetually among the lowest-ranked Prime Ministers, it has to be noted that she was left with a poison chalice in Brexit. Theresa May huffed and puffed, and truly did try her best to get a Brexit deal over the line, but it simply was not good enough. And that will be her legacy.

Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street on May 24, 2019 in London, England. The prime minister has announced that she will resign on Friday, June 7, 2019. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Watch the video: Chinas Botschafter darf nicht in das britische Parlament


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