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Exit, pursued by a bear

Revisiting other ministerial downfalls in British history

Frederick Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich

Alas poor Truss: our departed prime minister joins the history books in a spectacular fashion. Before her brief but momentous flash in the pan, the shortest serving prime minister had been George Canning, who held the post for 119 days in 1827. The brevity of his tenure is explained by the fact that he died in office. He can hardly be blamed for that.

Liz Truss well and truly smashed the unenviable record for the shortest term for a prime minister who did not have the misfortune to die in office. Frederick Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich, is hardly a household name. If he is remembered at all, it was for the horrible humiliation he suffered as a short-lived premier. But even he managed 144 days, an aeon on the Truss scale. The tale of the two PMs provides plenty more parallels.

Much like Liz Truss, “Prosperity Robinson” was an optimist when it came to the economy, happy to cut taxes but ill equipped to understand, let alone manage, financial meltdown. He was chancellor of the exchequer in 1826, when the Bank of England came close to financial collapse. “The state of the City, and the terror of all the bankers and merchants, as well as of all owners of property, is not to be conceived but by those who witnessed it.” The chancellor hardly inspired confidence as the economy crashed around him. “Robinson is obviously unequal to the present crisis,” wrote the diarist Charles Greville. “His mind is not sufficiently enlarged, nor does he seem to have any distinct ideas upon the subject; he is fighting in the dark.” Hideously out of his depth, everyone knew that he was forced to propose and defend measures dictated to him by a wiser and more experienced fellow minister. In office, to be sure; but not in power.

Frequently bested in the Commons, Robinson was kicked upstairs to the House of Lords, where a series of seasoned debaters took conspicuous delight in exposing his obvious oratorical deficiencies. The warnings were all there. But it did not stop him being appointed prime minister on 31 August, 1827.

Robinson’s fleeting tenure heralded the complete collapse of the Tory party, and a period of painful political upheaval for everyone else

The Tories soon found their brand-new premier’s “conduct has been marked by such deplorable weakness as shows how unfit he is for the situation he occupies.” Or, in the franker words of King George IV, Robinson was “a damned, snivelling, blubbering blockhead.” As his ministry quickly became a national joke, Robinson was described as being as “firm as a bullrush”. Nonetheless, he lived in a “kind of fool’s paradise, convinced his conduct was perfect”. Frederick Robinson had an excuse that Liz Truss does not. His mayfly-like tenancy of Downing Street was marked by deep personal tragedy. His wife, Sarah, suffered severe postnatal depression following the birth of the couple’s third child; their previous two children had died in infancy and Sarah experienced repeated mental ill-health.

Concerned for his wife, temperamentally unsuited to the demands of office, and unable to impose his authority on an unruly, squabbling cabinet and a bitterly divided Tory party, the king abruptly asked him to name a successor during one of their audiences. Poor Robinson began to well up when he realised the game was up, and George had to pass him a handkerchief to dry his eyes. “Oh dear, oh dear,” as our present King would say.

Robinson’s fleeting tenure heralded the complete collapse of the Tory party, and a period of painful political upheaval for everyone else. In the eight years between 1827 and 1834, there were eight prime ministerships and nine chancellors of the exchequer. Meanwhile, respect for parliament and trust in the institutions of the country sank to a level not seen again until our own present forlorn period, notwithstanding the turmoil of the 1970s.

Like Mrs Truss, Robinson inherited a Tory party that had been in office for a long time. Lord Liverpool’s seemingly endless premiership stretched from 1812 to 1827. But it was a rather jaded party by the 1820s, insulated as it was from electoral defeat by the unreformed system with its large number of rotten and nomination boroughs that returned a clear majority of ministry-supporting MPs. The remarkable and underrated George Canning was able to reach beyond traditional Tory supporters and engage wider public opinion. Disparaged by purists as a vulgar, ambitious and frivolous charlatan, Canning’s wit, oratorical brilliance and ability to court the press meant that he, in the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “flashed such light around the constitution that it was difficult to see the ruins of the fabric through it.” Neither Frederick Robinson nor his immediate successors could blind people to the problems assailing the nation in this way. And nor could they hold together the Tory party, which was splitting into ungovernable factions.

The cry “there goes the worst Chancellor of the Exchequer ever”, proved incorrect 259 years later

The Duke of Wellington, who took over from Robinson, far from arresting the Tory implosion, only hastened it. A great military leader he might have been, but in office he came across as haughty, inflexible and out of touch. First, the High Church Tory “Ultras” were enraged by the government’s decision to pass the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, widely regarded as a betrayal of Protestantism. Then, Wellington’s administration was hit by a severe economic depression. Preferring ideologically free market principles over intervention, his government appeared unfeeling, rudderless and incompetent.

As the country went hungry, the mood turned apocalyptic in 1829-30. The Tory government was labelled blundering and incapable of meeting the crisis; the Tory party itself had descended from its position of unassailable power and was squabbling while the country burnt. Contempt proved infectious: not just the Tories, but parliament and most of the institutions of the country were coming to be seen as corrupt and unfit for purpose. Outrage from all levels of society pushed the country to the brink of revolution. Instability in the country was mirrored by instability at Westminster, with a succession of prime ministers coming and going and bitter fights over the future of Britain.

“Boys do now cry ‘Kiss my Parliament’ instead of ‘Kiss my arse’.” So wrote Samuel Pepys of the so-called Rump Parliament back in 1660 in the period of instability after the death of Oliver Cromwell. The kids’ open mockery of parliament is a reminder of the periodic collapses of authority in British history, when parliament and rulers become laughing stocks. Cromwell’s ineffectual successor, his son Richard, was derided as “Queen Dick”; the panic that followed his brief but disastrous spell in power resulted in a dizzying succession of governments – perhaps ten in the twelve months after May 1659 – culminating in the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy to bring about some sort of stability. The Earl of Bute sparked riots when he unwisely introduced a cider tax in 1763 and left office in disgrace shortly afterwards. Bute’s chancellor, Sir Francis Dashwood, was so obviously incapable that his budget was received with shouts of laughter in parliament. Dashwood was overhead grumbling, “People will point at me in the streets, and cry: There goes the worst chancellor of the exchequer that ever appeared!” (Fortunately for Dashwood, that fear proved incorrect: he just had to wait 259 years.) Under a century later the ministry headed by Lord Derby in 1852 was nicknamed the “Who? Who? Ministry” because the very old and very deaf Duke of Wellington shouted “Who?” to every name when the list of unknown cabinet ministers was read out. This administration of nonentities and tyros lasted less than a year. (The “Who? Who? Ministry” sounds very post-Brexit.)

But the closest analogy to our own shameful times is the era precipitated by the brief spell of Frederick Robinson. The crises of the late 1820s and early 1830s brought, if not quite the country, then the parliamentary system close to annihilation. Nothing makes the country so enraged as an incompetent, divided, self-indulgent political class that loses its grip on national affairs while people suffer privations. Revenge can be merciless. In 1834 the Houses of Parliament burnt to the ground in an accidental fire. By then the recurrent waves of political crisis had been resolved by the self-destruction of the Tory party, and its subsequent rebirth as the Conservative Party, and the reform of parliament. The new building, the one we know today, symbolised the re-found dignity of parliament after years of ignominy and waning public trust. Our system has had its fits of madness, to be sure. None are as chaotic or as humiliating as the one we are going through now. The only consolation is that on every previous occasion the system has been capable of curing itself: after the fire comes the rebuilding.

Ben Wilson is the author of three books and was named in 2005 as one of Waterstone’s 25 Authors of the Future. He has consulted on scripts for various TV historyprogrammes, and has appeared on TV and on radio, here and abroad. His most recent book “HEYDAY: The Victorian Discovery of the World 1851-1867” is published by Orion

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Main Features, November 2022

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