It had not been Harley’s intention to lead a ministry dominated by extreme Tories, and in the light of recent events he was more than ever conscious of the likely harm to public credit. Naturally drawn to moderation, he attempted to include as many ‘Harleyite’ followers and moderates as possible in his new ministry. But High Tory backbenchers, flushed with the success of their landslide victory, were quick to complain that the incoming ministers were unlikely to have much in common with their own views. Harley thus found himself saddled with a House of Commons that would be difficult to control.
The election held in October and November 1710 produced contests in 131, almost half, of the 269 English and Welsh constituencies, and in 22 (again, 49 per cent) of the 45 Scottish constituencies. The Whigs had dreaded the prospect of an election in the aftermath of the Sacheverell trial, and a Tory victory was widely anticipated. In a bitter and hard fought campaign, there was overwhelming support for Sacheverell and for an end to the war. Even constituencies like Bedfordshire, which were traditionally immune to Toryism, fell prey to party strife. The Tories obtained a landslide result, the new House (in relation to England and Wales) comprising 329 Tories and 168 Whigs, with a further 14 MPs unclassified. In Scotland the Tories secured a surprising 17 seats, the remainder taken by Whigs. Of the 593 MPs who sat during the course of this Parliament, 168 (28 per cent) had no previous parliamentary experience.
When the Commons reassembled late in November 1710, the High Tory majority quickly showed its mettle by electing a High Churchman, William Bromley II, as Speaker. Many Tory backbenchers organized themselves into the ‘October Club’, a backbench association established to browbeat the moderate-thinking ministry into adopting measures that accorded fully with Tory principles. Bills against placemen in the Commons, and for repealing the Whigs’ Naturalization Act of 1709, were commenced in the Lower House but were thrown out in the Lords by a Harleyite-Whig alliance. However, another much-favoured Tory measure, for enforcing the landed qualifications required of MPs, passed into law in February 1711.
By March 1711, Harley’s efforts to curb Tory enthusiasm began to complicate his task of getting supply measures through the House. But an attempted assassination attack in which he was stabbed twice in the chest by a French spy, Guiscard (who was being questioned by Council) had the effect of enormously increasing his popularity. While Harley was recuperating, the High Tories stole a march by securing an Act for building 50 new churches in London’s suburbs, a deliberate effort to limit the influence of metropolitan Dissent. But this success was soon overshadowed by Harley’s clever handling of the financial crisis. He obtained parliamentary approval for a scheme to establish the South Sea Company as a route to clear some £9 million of unfunded or ‘floating’ debt, thereby establishing the Company as a Tory rival to the Whiggish Bank of England and East India Company. Above all, it showed the City that the Tories could be as successful in managing finance as the Whigs. Shortly before the session ended the Queen elevated Harley to the peerage as Earl of Oxford, and promoted him to lord treasurer.
The peace preliminaries signed secretly with France in September (but leaked to the press) added to Tory satisfaction and put the ministry in a strong position ahead of the coming session. However, on the first day of business, 7 Dec., the Court’s policy of peace ‘without Spain’ was dealt a severe blow when defeated by Whigs and discontented Tories. Before the year was out, Oxford took steps to guarantee a ministerial majority in the Lords by creating a bloc of twelve new peers, an expedient which many saw as unconstitutional.
In January 1712 Tory MPs were kept preoccupied with proceedings against Marlborough (recently dismissed as captain-general), and Robert Walpole (the former paymaster-general), on weak allegations of peculation. Walpole – a future premier – was expelled from the Commons and briefly committed to the Tower. The Tories succeeded, too, with a second attempt to repeal the Whig Naturalization Act.
In February, backbench Tory opinion was roused as part of the plan to ensure support for Oxford’s peace policy of withdrawing Britain from the war. Henry St. John II, the secretary of state, skillfully engineered a debate on the Barrier Treaty – negotiated with the Dutch in 1709 by the Whig Lord Townshend – in which the mishandling and loss of valuable trading concessions to Britain was heavily condemned. At the same time the Dutch and Imperialists were accused of shirking their treaty obligations to Britain to provide men and ships. The session ended in June 1712 with Parliament’s decisive endorsement of Oxford’s policy of ending Britain’s war separately from its allies.
The completion of the Treaty of Utrecht delayed the opening of the third and last session of this Parliament until April 1713. However, Oxford soon found himself confronted by hostility from the Scots MPs on account of the Union; by the High Tories, exasperated by his continuing moderation; and by the ‘Hanoverian’ Tories who suspected him of favouring a Jacobite solution to the succession issue. Moreover, since the previous autumn deepening rivalry had damaged relations between Oxford and St John (recently ennobled as Viscount Bolingbroke). The state of disaffection within the Tory party was graphically revealed on 18 June when a revolt by Hanoverian Tories, led by the Suffolk knight of the shire Sir Thomas Hanmer (II), 4th Bt., led the ministry to defeat on their bill for implementing the Anglo-French commercial treaty. Further ministerial failure occurred in the Lords on 29 June over a Whig motion requiring the French to expel the Pretender from Lorraine in accordance with the terms of Utrecht. Bolingbroke now seized the opportunity to exploit these divisions among the Tories and intrigue for leadership of the party.
G. Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne (London, 1967)