The ‘Who? Who? Ministry

My blog post for this month will be about of the so-called ‘Who? Who?’ Ministry, a short-lived Conservative government under Edward Smith-Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby, which was in power from February to December 1852. I consider this to be outside my comfort zone, since as a historian, I am usually focused on the Classical and Medieval period, so a Victorian government is not usually what I write about. Nevertheless, I also consider this subject to be somewhat topical, for reasons that I hope to make clear at the end of this post.

The government was formed in 1852, following the fall of prime minister John Russell’s government due to a defeat over a Militia Bill. The political situation in the House of Commons at this time was heavily divided due to the controversy following Russell’s predecessor, Sir Robert Peel repealed of the Corn Laws, in the belief that this would offset the Irish Potato Famine. This act divided the Conservative party, many of whom supported protectionist policies, and led to the fall of his government. He was replaced by John Russell, leader of the Whig party (the forerunner of the modern Liberal Democrat party). Russell’s government suffered from a disunited Cabinet, culminating in the sacking of the Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, who would take his revenge by opposing the failed militia act that led to the government’s resignation.
Queen Victoria asked Lord Derby, to form a new government. Derby had some experience in government having previously served as Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. He had also led a group of moderate politicians during the 1830s, who had been derisively nicknamed the ‘Derby Dilly’, and had been nicknamed the ‘Prince Rupert of Debate’, because he supposedly could lead his supporters into an attack, but was unable to rally them afterwards. Nevertheless, by the early 1850s, he had become a leading figure in the Conservative Party, and was considered something of a moderate, in that while he did not support all the reforms proposed by Peel, he was not opposed to all change, unlike some of the other Conservatives. Consequently, in the aftermath of the defeat of Russell’s government, he was a logical choice for a prime minister, though he was somewhat hampered by the fact that not all of the Conservative party supported him.

Following the fall of Peel’s government, the Conservative party had divided into two groups, one led by Derby, and the other led by Peel. Consequently, with the subsequent division of the Whigs following Lord Palmerston’s resignation, while Derby technically led the largest group in Parliament, he was in a minority. Added to his problems were the fact that most of the more experienced Conservative politicians had sided with Peel, meaning that Derby was forced to appoint many inexperienced men to the Cabinet. The ministry gained its enduring nickname when the new ministers were announced in the House of Lords. The Duke of Wellington, who was then eighty-two and would die later that year, kept on asking ‘Who? Who?’ at the announcement of each minister, due to being deaf, however, the nickname stuck, given that only three of the Cabinet members chosen had any previous experiences in government.

The fact that Derby was severely limited in his choice of ministers, was notable for the fact that it meant that the relatively unknown Benjamin Disraeli became a Cabinet minister for the first time. Disraeli would go on to be prime minister several times in the later nineteenth century, and is notable for being the first ethnically Jewish prime minister (though he had converted to Christianity before his election to Parliament). Disraeli held the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Since Derby, and most other Cabinet Members of the Who? Who? Ministry were members of the House of Lords, Disraeli was required to lead the government in the House of Commons. Disraeli is reported to have considered himself unfit for the position, due to having little interest or understanding of financial matters. Derby is reported to have told him, when he voiced these concerns that the civil servants at the treasury would bring him the figures, he merely needed to read them out.

As is often the case with minority governments, the ministry found it difficult to govern. Presumably due to his later fame, it was traditionally assumed that the government was dominated by Disraeli. Recent research has shown that his influence has been exaggerated.

Because of his lack of a majority, Derby asked Queen Victoria to dissolve Parliament early and call a general election in June 1852. Following the election, the Conservatives under Derby and Disraeli won 330 seats, 42.9% of the total. The Whigs however only 292 seats. The remaining seats were held by the other members of the Conservative party under Peel, supporters of Free Trade, and the Independent Irish Party, a group of Irish MPs that wanted to reform Ireland to improve the situation of the poorer people. Derby had to carefully work with these groups to convince them that it would be better to support his government than to all vote with the Whigs in a vote of no confidence.

Accordingly, the ministry accomplished very little, since Derby and Disraeli had to accommodate so many groups. When the Duke of Wellington died in September, it was argued that since the government spent so much time and money planning his state funeral that it was more interested in a dead duke than the living.
The government’s day of reckoning came in December when Disraeli submitted his Budget. A defeat on the Budget vote in the House of Commons is traditionally treated the same way as a vote of no confidence in the government, and William Ewart Gladstone, who would later become Disraeli’s great rival, heavily criticised Disraeli’s proposals, cast doubt on the veracity of his figures and theories, and the fact that his Budget planned to raise Income Tax on the poorer. This speech won over the various opposed factions, and when the vote went to a division, it was rejected by eighteen votes. Derby and the Cabinet resigned immediately, and Lord Aberdeen was appointed prime minister, presiding over an unwieldy coalition of the disparate groups that turned out to have not as much in common as they had when passing a vote of no confidence in Derby’s government.

Nevertheless, despite Disraeli’s famous remark that ‘England does not love coalitions’, the Aberdeen Ministry remained in power until 1855, when Aberdeen was forced to resign due to inept handling of the Crimean War.

In my introduction I said that I considered this topic to be relevant to the current political situation in Great Britain. I came to this conclusion after learning that an increasingly popular prognosis for the general election this year is that no single political party will win an outright majority, and with the rise of parties outside the traditional ‘Big Three’ (the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrat Party), such as the Scottish National Party, the United Kingdom Independence Party and the Green Party, planning to stand for Westminster, and gaining increasing popularity. It is very possible that the House of Commons that results from May’s election will be even more fragmented than the present one.

If that does indeed come to pass, then the prospect that Great Britain will be governed by a minority government such as the one Derby formed in 1852 is a very real possibility. Indeed, several political leaders have suggested that they would be prepared to do precisely that. A commentator for the Spectator magazine, James Forsyth, has written that ‘The truth is that whoever wins the election, Cameron or Miliband, they are highly unlikely to make it through a full five-year term.’ (
Whether or not this will be the case remains to be seen, however it can be argued that the problems faced by minority governments are still issues that could easily be faced by future governments, and it is clear that they will need to learn from Derby and Disraeli’s example if they wish to avoid a vote of no confidence.

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