A brief history of the Conservative Party

From the ongoing Brexit saga to rumours of a leadership contest, the Conservative Party has dominated headlines in recent months. But how much do you know about the history of the party? When was it first established, who was the first Conservative prime minister, and why is it known as the Tory party?

The origins of the Conservative Party can be traced to the ‘Tory’ group in parliament which emerged in the last quarter of the 17th century and, led by Lord Bolingbroke (pictured) and Robert Harley, held power during the final years of Queen Anne’s reign. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Here, Professor Stuart Ball, an expert in Conservative Party history, explains…


The origins of the Conservative Party can be traced to the ‘Tory’ group in parliament which emerged in the last quarter of the 17th century and, led by Robert Harley and Lord Bolingbroke, held power during the final years of Queen Anne’s reign. However, they were eclipsed by their Whig rivals after the succession of the house of Hanover in 1714, and further tainted first by Bolingbroke’s flight to France and his involvement in the Jacobite rising of 1715; and second by the Atterbury Plot, led by the Tory Bishop of Rochester, to organise a rising in conjunction with an invasion from France in 1722.

Tories were excluded from office during the reigns of George I and George II, but following the long period of Whig dominance the name ‘Tory’ re-emerged in the late-18th century. This ‘Tory Party’ established a secure hold on government between 1783 and 1830, first under William Pitt the Younger (prime minister 1783–1801 and 1804–06) and then Lord Liverpool (prime minister 1812–27). However, after Liverpool’s retirement the unity of the party was destroyed in 1829 when his successors, the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel, were forced to concede full political emancipation to the Roman Catholic majority in Ireland and minority in England.

Tory divisions opened the way for a return of the Whigs in the 1830s, and a series of measures including the Great Reform Act of 1832 changed the political scene; in the general election which followed reform the Tories were reduced to only 179 MPs. It was in the wake of these upheavals that the name ‘Conservative’ began to be used, although ‘Tory’ and ‘Tories’ have remained as shorthand terms to the present day.

Robert Peel and the Corn Laws

From the mid-1830s, Peel sought to rally the opponents of further reforms, particularly in municipal government and the position of the Church of England. After gaining ground in the 1837 election, Peel eventually won a substantial majority in 1841. However, his decision in 1846 to reverse course and repeal the protectionist Corn Laws outraged many of his followers and the party was split from top to bottom; in the crucial division only 112 Conservative MPs supported repeal whilst 231 voted against.

The minority of ‘Peelites’ included nearly all of the leading figures; after occupying a detached position, they eventually merged into the Liberal Party in the 1860s. The majority protectionist section consisted mainly of backbench MPs and retained the name Conservative; it was led from the House of Lords by the 14th Earl of Derby (1799­–1869), who formed two short-lived minority governments during intervals of Whig disunity in 1852 and 1858–59. The Conservatives suffered from a lack of debating talent in the House of Commons, and it was for this reason that the previously derided figure of Benjamin Disraeli emerged as the party’s leader in the Commons in the early 1850s.

Portrait of Sir Robert Peel, c1845. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Portrait of Sir Robert Peel, c1845. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The age of Disraeli

The defeat of the Whig ministry’s parliamentary reform bill led to a third minority Conservative government in 1866–68, led first by Derby and then by Disraeli during its final months of February to December 1868. Shaped by Disraeli’s adroit tactics in the Commons, the Second Reform Act of 1867 was a bold stroke which sought to protect Conservative interests and restore their credibility as a governing party. Most of the new voters were in the industrial towns and cities, and it was with the aim of improving Conservative prospects here that Disraeli founded the two complementary institutions of the party. The National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations was formed in 1867 and the Conservative Central Office established in 1870; their names have been amended at various times, but their roles have remained constant. The National Union is the representative body of the party membership and local constituency associations are affiliated to it – its best-known function is the holding of the annual party conference. Central Office (now Conservative Campaign Headquarters) is the base for the party’s paid officials and organisers – it is under the direct authority of the party leader and has always been located near to parliament.

The Conservatives were defeated in the election of 1868 by the Liberal Party, now led by William Gladstone, but his government became increasingly unpopular and in 1874 Disraeli won 350 seats and the first Conservative majority in the House of Commons since 1841. His government of 1874–80 was a landmark in Conservative fortunes, and its domestic measures widened its appeal to the urban middle and working classes. At the same time, Disraeli forged the crucial link between the Conservative Party and patriotic pride in nation and empire.

Although economic problems and Gladstone’s revival of Liberal morale led to defeat in 1880, the position of the Conservative Party became much stronger in the last quarter of the 19th century and this enabled them to capitalise on Liberal divisions.

Benjamin Disraeli emerged as the party’s leader in the Commons in the early 1850s. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)
Benjamin Disraeli emerged as the party’s leader in the Commons in the early 1850s. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)

Irish Home Rule and tariff reform

In the crisis of 1886 – caused by Gladstone’s proposal to establish a devolved parliament for Ireland (known as ‘Home Rule’) – Disraeli’s successor, the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, moved rapidly to entrench the Conservatives as the defenders of the Union. A substantial section of the Liberal Party, led by Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain, could not accept Gladstone’s policy and broke away. These ‘Liberal Unionists’ first gave informal support to Salisbury’s government of 1886–1892, and then took office as a coalition partner when Salisbury returned to power in 1895. The relationship became increasingly close, and from the 1890s to the 1920s ‘Unionist’ displaced Conservative as the commonly-used name for the party. In 1912 the Liberal Unionists formally merged with the Conservatives, creating the official name of ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ which still remains.

The Irish question and Liberal disunity led to a substantial victory for the Unionist coalition of 411 MPs in 1895, and this was maintained with 402 MPs at the next election in 1900, held during patriotic fervour at the height of the Second Boer War (when Dutch-speaking settlers and soldiers from the British empire fought battles in South Africa between 1899 and 1902).

When Salisbury retired from the premiership in 1902, the outlook for the Conservatives seemed very favourable. However, their fortunes swiftly declined under his nephew and successor, Arthur Balfour, and the period from 1902 to 1914 was one of the most difficult and disunited in the party’s history. The problems were principally caused by the programme of ‘tariff reform’ launched by Joseph Chamberlain in 1903. This proposed a return to protectionism combined with lower duties on trade within the British empire, with the aim of fostering greater imperial unity. It was soon supported by most Conservatives, but was strongly opposed by a small group of free traders. More seriously, working-class fears that duties on food imports would raise the cost of living made it an electoral liability. This was the main factor in the party’s worst-ever defeat in 1906, when it was reduced to 156 MPs, and it contributed to the narrower reverses in the elections of January and December 1910, when 272 Conservatives were returned on both occasions.


Following the latter, the party was bitterly divided over how far to resist the Liberal government’s reform of the House of Lords in 1911, which led to Balfour’s resignation. His unexpected successor, Andrew Bonar Law (party leader 1911–21 and 1922–23), restored morale with a series of vigorous attacks on the Liberal government, but there were further divisions over the tariff reform policy in 1913 and the Conservatives lacked any constructive response to the Liberals’ social reform measures. During the passage of the third Irish Home Rule Bill in 1912–14 Law moved to an extreme position in support of Ulster, and appeared willing to back potentially violent paramilitary resistance.