Sir Robert Peel and Theresa May: a suitable comparison?

Prime Minister Theresa May risks "splitting the Conservative party like Sir Robert Peel" if she fails to deliver a clean break from the European Union, senior Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has claimed

A portrait of British Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), c1845. The Victorian prime minister, who is best known for repealing the Corn Laws in 1846, has been likened by the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg to the sitting prime minister, Theresa May. May risks “splitting the Conservative party like Sir Robert Peel" if she fails to deliver a clean break from the European Union, Rees-Mogg has warned. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Writing in The Telegraph newspaper, Rees-Mogg compared Mrs May’s position to that of Sir Robert Peel, the Victorian Conservative prime minister who was forced to resign after his party revolted over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The Corn Laws, which had been passed in 1815, restricted the amount of foreign grain that could be imported into England – an arrangement which was supported by landowners but strongly opposed by manufacturers and the urban working class.

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But is Rees-Mogg’s comparison between Robert Peel and Theresa May a fair one? Here, Dr Richard A Gaunt, who specialises in British political and electoral history between 1790 and 1850, shares his opinion…

For Conservatives, there is no more salutary historical lesson of the consequences of leading a divided party than the experience of Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850). Elected with a governing majority of 76 in the general election of June 1841, the party was split for a generation after Peel insisted on pursuing a policy of free trade, through the repeal of the Corn Laws, five years later. The party, created in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act, divided, with roughly one-third acting as ‘Peelites’ until the 1860s and the other two-thirds continuing without them. The Conservative Party did not form another majority government until Benjamin Disraeli’s triumph at the general election of 1874.

Superficially, the parallels between Peel’s experience and the current difficulties facing Theresa May are compelling. The prime minister faces a divided cabinet and party on an issue of fundamental national importance which will set the path of policy for a generation to come. But while Peel argued that he had pursued the most conservative act of his life, by placing country before party, many commentators believe that it will prove impossible for Mrs May to deliver on the result of the 2016 EU referendum whilst retaining the loyalty and support of her party.

Members of the Bow Street Horse Patrol, one of the earliest mounted police forces in the world, London, early 1800s. The group, made up of former cavalry soldiers, was absorbed into Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan police force in 1836. (Photo by Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is the Conservative MP for North East Somerset, has explicitly likened May’s situation to that of Robert Peel; however, he would do well to consider the fundamental differences between the two episodes. First, Peel’s Conservatives were elected to parliament in June 1841 on a pledge to uphold economic protection, in the face of the Whigs’ proposed relaxation of duties on imports including corn. Though Peel avoided a personal pledge on the issue, many of his backbenchers regarded it as a betrayal of their electors when he subsequently pursued repeal. Peel was dismissive of those Conservative backbenchers who fought by-elections to secure a new electoral mandate, after coming out in favour of the measure. For him, sovereignty resided in parliament, under the clear direction of the executive.

Though there may be comparisons here with the way in which parliament has asserted its right to be actively involved in the Brexit process, the crucial difference arises from the fact that former prime minister David Cameron’s Conservative manifesto for the 2015 General Election promised a UK-wide referendum on the European issue. Against all predictions, Cameron secured outright victory and the referendum was legislated for by parliament, with large majorities. It was the outcome of the referendum which entirely transformed the situation.

A Vote to Leave campaigner holds a placard as the then-leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, campaigned for votes to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, 25 May 2016 in Bolton. Britain voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
A Vote to Leave campaigner holds a placard as the then-leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, campaigned for votes to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, 25 May 2016 in Bolton. Britain voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

In many respects, Theresa May, who argued for the Remain side, has inherited a situation not of her making. Peel, by contrast, was moving inexorably towards free trade throughout his 1841–46 government – with many bruising encounters with his backbenchers preceding the final rupture. The failure of the Irish potato crop in 1845 provoked Peel into concluding that there was no alternative but full repeal – a diagnosis which many of his MPs did not agree with. Peel’s explicit sympathies for changing course may thus be contrasted with May’s tendency to keep her powder dry – a predicament she created by failing to secure an enhanced majority in the 2017 general election and the necessary compromises imposed upon her as the head of a minority government.

The circumstances surrounding the election of Theresa May as Conservative party leader in 2016 had ensured that leading Brexiteer candidates fell by the wayside. Though May’s path to the premiership was eased, she has subsequently faced accusations of lukewarm commitment to Brexit. By contrast, Peel was entrenched as party leader, using his authority to try to convince his cabinet of the arguments for repeal. When three ministers dissented, he resigned, offering his personal support to any incoming ministry committed to repeal. However, in Disraeli’s immortal phrase, Lord John Russell “passed the poisoned chalice” back to Peel, having failed to form an alternative government.

A depiction of the interior of parliament. (© Palace of Westminster Collection, WOA 742 www.parliament.uk/art)

Newly emboldened, Peel assembled a new cabinet and, secure in the belief that he was the only person able to provide good government for the queen, pursued repeal, increasingly heedless of the impact upon his party. He was able to do so largely because of the supportive votes of the Whig opposition. However, the bitterness within Conservative ranks was given voice by two talented backbenchers, Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck, who not only regarded repeal as a betrayal of party but a slight of honour.

If May succeeds in securing cabinet backing for her government’s proposals, she will still need to convince MPs in the House of Commons, and peers in the House of Lords, to back her. The progress of the repeal bill in the Lords was eased considerably, during 1846, by the leadership of the Duke of Wellington. Privately sceptical of the merits of the measure, Wellington allowed Conservative peers to dissent without imperilling the future strength of the party in the upper house.

However, perhaps the greatest difference between repeal and Brexit lies in the fact that May is not working in a vacuum. Brexit is a negotiation, not only within the cabinet, the Conservative party and both Houses of Parliament, but with 27 other EU member states, the European Commission and the European Parliament. Whatever unanimity might be achieved in British domestic politics may still be knocked off course by the reaction her government’s proposals receive.

Though Sir Robert Peel’s government enacted repeal, it was defeated immediately afterwards by a combination of hostile Conservatives, Whigs, and Irish MPs. The current government’s reliance on DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) members for its majority, and the centrality of the Northern Ireland border issue to Brexit, mean that Ireland is a stronger point of comparison between the situation of Theresa May and Robert Peel than most MPs realise.

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Dr Richard A Gaunt is Associate Professor in history at the University of Nottingham and the author of Sir Robert Peel. The Life and Legacy (London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2010).