The 1807 Parliament saw three Tory administrations (Portland, 1807-9, Perceval, 1809-12, and Liverpool, 1812-27); George III’s final lapse into insanity and the appointment by the Act of February 1811 of his eldest son George, prince of Wales, as regent (with restricted powers for the first year); the only assassination of a British prime minister (Spencer Perceval, in the lobby of the House, by a deranged bankrupt’s pistol, 11 May 1812), and, after some initial disasters, a decisive change of fortune in the war against France, as Viscount Wellington won a series of victories in the Peninsula.
The general election ran from 4 May until 9 June 1807. Of the 380 constituencies, 102 (27 per cent) were contested. The slogan of ‘No Popery’ was widely used by supporters of the Portland ministry against the friends of the late government, who failed to find an effective riposte. The most eye-catching election occurred in Westminster, where the patrician radical, Sir Francis Burdett, backed by local tradesmen activists under the direction of the Charing Cross tailor Francis Place, was returned at the head of the poll on a ‘purity of election’ platform. There was a fierce and expensive contest for Yorkshire, which cost the three protagonists about £225,000. Only 84 Members with no previous parliamentary experience were returned; another 115 came in subsequently. The new Parliament contained 384 supporters of government, 218 adherents of opposition, 28 independent, 16 doubtful and 12 neutral Members.
The terminally ill 3rd duke of Portland was replaced as prime minister in October 1809 by his chancellor of the exchequer Perceval, but only after weeks of Court and cabinet intrigue and a public quarrel over the conduct of the war between George Canning, the foreign secretary, and Lord Castlereagh, the colonial secretary, who fought a duel, in which Canning was wounded in the thigh, on 21 Sept. 1809. Both resigned, and Canning, with his ‘little senate’ of personal followers, was out of domestic office, though not of the high political game, for over six years. The Regency Act of 1811 placed restrictions of power on the prince regent for a year, ostensibly in case his father recovered his sanity; but when they expired in early 1812 he dashed once and for all the hopes of the Foxite and Grenvillite Whig opposition of being asked to form a ministry. Perceval took Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth into his cabinet in early 1812.
When he was killed in May the 2nd earl of Liverpool, the colonial secretary, was his colleagues’ choice to succeed as premier; but on 21 May the independent Tory backbencher James Stuart Wortley carried (174-170), with Whig support, a motion to address the regent for the formation of a stronger administration; this was intended to open the way for Canning’s return to office. The government resigned, but after three weeks of negotiation and manoeuvre, involving Canning, Lord Wellesley, the Whig leaders, and the regent’s acolyte Lord Moira, deadlock was reached, and Liverpool was reinstated. After the failure of an attempt to recruit Canning, he looked to an autumn dissolution to strengthen his Commons position.
The 1807 Parliament saw the start of a gradual return to a basic two-party system of politics. By 1812, the personal factions attached to Sidmouth and the prince of Wales had been absorbed into government and opposition respectively. Canning’s cohort survived, but was soon to be formally dissolved. The main Whig opposition of some 220, led by Grenville and the idle 2nd Earl Grey (formerly Lord Howick) and in the Commons by the well-connected Irishman George ‘Snouch’ Ponsonby (who was easily and frequently outshone by the rising maverick star Henry Brougham) was by no means united. There was a basic divergence between the conservative Grenvillites and the more liberal Foxites, notably on the issues of war and parliamentary reform.
The House now had a small but vocal radical presence, in the persons of Burdett (who became a popular martyr when he was committed to the Tower by 190 votes to 152 for a breach of privilege in April 1810), Gwyllym Lloyd Wardle and a few others. Their campaign against corruption in high places was supported by some two dozen advanced Whigs (the ‘Mountain’), who included Grey’s brother-in-law Samuel Whitbread. In 1809 Wardle forced the king’s son, the duke of York, to resign as commander-in-chief by exposing the interference of his mistress Mary Anne Clarke in the disposal of army patronage. More respectable backbenchers than Wardle, such as the independent Tory Henry Bankes, pressed for economical reform; and two motions for cuts were carried against the Perceval ministry in 1812. There was increasing Whig support for parliamentary reform, but proposals by Thomas Brand in 1810 and 1812 attracted minorities of only 115 and 88.
Five divisions on the issue of the failed Scheldt expedition in the first three months of 1810 are of special interest, for, unusually, both majority and minority lists were published. They revealed the vulnerability of the government, and prompted some Whig activists to compile a sophisticated analysis of the House (which was later leaked to and printed by the Satirist newspaper). On 24 Apr. 1812 the Irish Whig Henry Grattan secured 215 votes to 300 for inquiry into Catholic disabilities; and on 22 June 1812 Canning carried by 235-106 a motion to legislate for relief in the next session.