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The General Election of 1841
A Turning Point The 1841 election was a major triumph for Peel. It produced a victory for the Conservatives by more than seventy seats (a majority of 76) and was also the first time in British electoral history that a party with a theoretical parliamentary majority had been replaced by another with a majority.
1841: The Result General Election Result (seats won) Conservatives 367 Whigs 291 Total Seats 658
Why? Why did the Conservatives win?
Conservatism Peel is credited with the Conservative victory in Without his leadership many contemporaries and later historians believed that the Tories could have been assigned to permanent opposition. He skilfully exploited middle class reaction against the Whigs and in his hundred-day ministry of gained support and respect for his administrative ability and statesmanship. He managed to distance himself from the ultra-Toryism of the early period and in the Tamworth Manifesto offered a new ‘conservative’ vision of politics that accepted the constitutional settlement of 1832 and promised to support reform of ‘proven abuses.’
Division Amongst the Whigs There were, however, other pressures at work over which Peel had little or no control. First, the Whigs were far from being dominant after the 1832 General election. Forty MPs who has supported the Reform Act moved to the Conservative benches between 1832 and Several Whigs defected/resigned over the Whig reform of the church in Ireland. The relationship between the Whigs and the Radicals was fragile and it was Conservative votes that permitted Melbourne to resist radical pressures. Tory propaganda, especially in the late 1830s, stressed the Whigs’ inability to control the radicals’ wilder excesses.
Frequent General Elections The unexpected frequency of general elections during the 1830s also aided the Conservative cause. Peel used William IV’s invitation to form a government in late 1834 to request the dissolution of Parliament giving the Tories an opportunity to regroup. A further election was called on the death of William IV in A new monarch must have a new Parliament. These gave those voters, concerned that the Whigs wished to push reform further and threaten their position as property-holders, the opportunity of voting Tory
Conservative Organisation The emergence of Conservative Party organisation also played an important part in reviving Tory fortunes. The Reform Act required voters to register and this provided opportunities for local supporters to organise and consolidate their party’s voting strength. Peel recognised the need for party organisation but was, at least initially, ambivalent in his attitude. He was suspicious of extra-parliamentary pressure and this meant that his relations with many local Tory organisations were not particularly close. By 1837 Peel was urging his supporters to ‘Register, register, register’ but others laid the foundations particularly the party agent Francis Bonham. The Conservatives won in 1841 because they were a much better organised national party than the Whigs.
Election Issues Many landowners were alarmed by the reform of the Church of England in the 1830s such as the Marriage Act 1836 and feared further concessions. More importantly, the landed classes closed ranks in defence of the Corn Laws that they considered essential to maintaining the prosperity of arable farmers, especially in southern England. Most conservative MPs were forced to give pledges to defend the Corn Laws during the election campaign and the party won 157 country seats compared to only 22 seats secured by the Whigs. The Conservatives also did well in the smaller boroughs in which landed influence was significant but poorly in industrial areas and in urban constituencies with an electorate over 2,000. It is clear that, despite Peel’s energies and the new ‘Conservatism’, among many social groups the party remained pre-Tamworth in outlook and spirit. Many voters were frightened by radical Chartism and the apparent weakness of the Whigs to deal with it
Short Term Economic and Political Difficulties for the Whigs The government went into national deficit because of a slump in trade. A series of bad harvests coincided with a slump in foreign trade led to unemployment and hunger Opposition to the Poor Law merged with the rise of physical force Chartism and the Conservatives were able to accuse the Whigs of failing to keep order as well as failing to manage the nation’s budget.