In contrast to its predecessor, which lasted over six years under the stable Liverpool ministry, the Parliament of 1826 ran to only four sessions and saw Lord Liverpool’s premiership followed in rapid succession by those of Canning, Goderich and Wellington. George Canning died before his abortive government had established itself, while Lord Goderich capitulated without even meeting Parliament. In a remarkable alteration of the constitution, the duke of Wellington’s period in office saw both the repeal of the Test Acts and Catholic emancipation. In the aftermath of the latter event, the Ultra wing of the Tory party joined the Whigs and radicals in a reinvigorated parliamentary opposition.
At the general election in June and July 1826 there were contests in 112 (29 per cent) of the 380 constituencies. The ‘No Popery’ cry against Catholic relief was the main issue, and on balance there were about a dozen more anti-Catholic MPs compared to the previous Parliament. Ireland, where there were a number of exceptionally violent elections, witnessed the successful return of high profile supporters of the Catholic cause, most notably in county Waterford.
Lord Liverpool suffered a stroke in February 1827, but no successor was immediately chosen. Eventually George IV appointed Canning, but his pro-Catholic leanings provided Robert Peel and Wellington with a pretext for resigning with the right wing of the Tory party. Canning negotiated a deal with Lord Lansdowne, the head of the moderate Whigs, over a coalition, but the leader Earl Grey and many of the younger Whigs remained aloof. Canning survived a torrid first session, but died in August 1827 after only four months in office.
Viscount Goderich (Frederick Robinson) attempted to continue Canning’s experiment in cross-party government, but personal failings and internal dissensions precipitated his tearful resignation in January 1828. Wellington took over, without the backing of the coalition Whigs, but with the support of a group of Canning’s former friends, now referred to as the Huskissonites. However, by May 1828 William Huskisson and his associates Lords Dudley and Palmerston had resigned.
Lord John Russell unexpectedly secured the repeal of the Test Acts in February 1828, so removing the remaining civil disabilities suffered by Dissenters. The more controversial policy of taking the same step in relation to Catholics had been narrowly defeated in 1827, but the Commons again approved it in 1828. The Irish Catholic Daniel O’Connell’s stunning victory in the county Clare by-election that summer provoked Wellington and Peel to re-examine the Catholic question. Their principled u-turn, in the teeth of fierce royal and Ultra opposition, led to the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. The first of the Catholic Members in the Commons was not O’Connell, but the duke of Norfolk’s son Lord Surrey.
In Ireland, emancipation was accompanied by the Franchise Act, under which the right of voting for freeholders in counties was raised from 40s. to £10 a year; this reduced the size of the Irish county electorate to a fraction of what it had been. In England, the seats of the delinquent boroughs of East Retford and Penryn were not in the end transferred to Leeds or Manchester, as reformers had hoped. One move towards ending electoral abuses was the (English) Borough Polls Act of 1828.
During the 1830 session the revived Whig opposition and Sir Richard Vyvyan’s Ultra Tories attacked ministers repeatedly, including over taxation and retrenchment. The death of George IV that year brought to the end a short but animated Parliament. Canning’s triumphant speech on Portugal (12 Dec. 1826) was immortalized in Lawrence’s full-length portrait (in the NPG). The fractured state of parties after Canning’s death produced three years of political instability.
P. Jupp, British Politics on the Eve of Reform: The Duke of Wellington’s Administration, 1828-1830 (Basingstoke, 1998).