I shall be brief.
You may recall that on 11 May 1812, Prime Minister Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons.
Now today this might have triggered a new Parliamentary election or an election of a new leader of whichever party held power, or even the accession of a Deputy Prime Minister to the post of Prime Minister.
However, 200 years ago, the post of Prime Minister was in the gift of the Prince Regent. And the chappie who accepted that gift-post needed then to fill the other various Cabinet positions from among his political allies, friends and even relations.
With Perceval’s death, many had expected the Prince Regent to turn to his former drinking cronies, the Whigs–those to whom he’d always promised power when he wasn’t in a position to give it–to find and form a Government from amongst their ranks.
But that’s precisely what the Prince Regent didn’t do.
Instead, he turned first to Sir Richard Wellesley, Lord Wellington’s elder brother and another former drinking partner.
Still, there was a problem.
Too many of the current Cabinet Ministers and others in the Tory party distrusted Wellesley. Also, he’d had published a critique of Perceval’s premiership after Perceval’s death, in the Times. You couldn’t top this for being dishonourable.
So, Wellesley needed to elicit the support of some of the front bench of the Whig benches. However, the two biggest shots, and obvious choices, were Lords Grey and Greville and neither of them would join a Cabinet that did not promise to push through Catholic Emancipation in Ireland.
And the problem with that was? The Prince Regent was wholly against the idea and would have none of it.
Hence, Wellesley had to eventually tell HRH that he couldn’t do the job, he couldn’t form a Government. Full stop.
Then, on 21 May, a chap by the name of Wortley called for a vote of ‘confidence’ in the Government, claiming that “…the administration which was now upon the eve of being formed was inadequate to meet the exigencies of the times…” and “that the present government was not very strong, even with the aid of Mr. Perceval’s great talents…and that they were certainly worse than weak without them.”
Nice, eh? We’ve got a little governmental crisis here, we’re in the midst of a world war, so what shall we do? Oh, I think add the toppling of the Government to it, don’t you? Great idea!
The Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, speaking in the House of Commons, addressed the motion thusly: “At no period of our history was it more necessary that a Government should be formed of the united talent and honour of the nation…”
He announced his readiness to resign from his position as Foreign Secretary. Then he added, “But for the moment, but for the moment, the whole attention of the administration should be bent to the great difficulties in which the country is placed, and, above all, to conducting the war on the Peninsula on the largest possible scale.”
The Government lost the vote by four votes.
The Prince Regent now did as was expected of him. He turned to the Whig peer, Lord Moira.
And Lord Moira had the cunning plan to form a coalition government by bringing in George Canning (Lord Castlereagh’s rival and enemy–they’d even fought a duel over Canning’s backstabbing ways–which ended with a bullet in Canning’s thigh…Whoops.) and his chums.
But that didn’t work out so well either. There were a number of people who didn’t quite trust Canning after the behaviour which had led to the duel. He wasn’t, as it were, considered a gentleman.
So…there we are…sitting in Brook’s Club on 8 June, with the Whig MP, Thomas Creevey , who was writing to his wife and telling her quite jubilantly that Lord Moira had been made Prime Minister that day. When what should happen, but Castlereagh walked past him and stopped to have a brief word.
Whereupon Creevey finished his letter this way: “Well this is beyond anything, Castlereagh has just told us that Moira resigned the commission this morning, and that His Royal Highness had appointed Lord Liverpool Prime Minister. Was there ever anything equal to this?”
The new administration was in place by 200 years ago today: Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister; Lord Castlereagh remained at the Foreign Office and became Leader of the House of Commons as well; Lord Sidmouth took over the Home Office…
The first order of business that the new administration undertook on 16 June was to repeal the Orders in Council–those Orders which had brought the 50-year old United States to the point of declaring war with Great Britain.
But their action came too late.
For on the very same day, the United States Congress–led by the War Hawks and President James Madison, who were eager to take full advantage of Britain’s large-scale military commitments in the Peninsula against Napoleon’s troops there to launch their own land grab of Canada, and fully expecting their favourite ally, Napoleon to conquer Russia–declared war on Great Britain.
There were those who expected that with the repeal of the Orders in Council, the alleged cassus belli, the Americans back down by saying, “Righto, that’s us sorted,” and war would be averted.
But that sanguine hope was not to be fulfilled.
And there you have it. A busy day all round, wasn’t it?