The May 1831 general election was called at very short notice, so few candidates had made preparations and some preferred to await the expected passing of the reform legislation before standing. Popular support for the reform bill was of such strength that opponents were swept away, in many cases withdrawing before the polls opened in the knowledge that they would be defeated. About a third of the 380 constituencies were contested. Of the 40 English counties, 11 of which experienced contests, only Shropshire returned two anti-reformers, and only four other anti-reformers were elected in the remaining 80 county seats. New Members, about three-quarters of whom were reformers, numbered 137, counting both the general election and subsequent by-elections. The government gained about 70 MPs and had an overwhelming majority of about 150.
The second reading of the government’s re-introduced reform bill passed comfortably in the Commons, by 367-231, on 6 July 1831. The unflappable Lord Althorp, the leader of the House, saw the bill through 40 days of proceedings in committee, where a handful of Tories, notably the inflexible John Wilson Croker and the irascible Sir Charles Wetherell, kept up a constant barrage of opposition, as did the radical MP Henry Hunt. The decision to allow debate on the total or partial disfranchisement of nearly 100 boroughs meant that there was endless scope for delays, and the third reading was not taken until 21 Sept. The only major government defeat was over the ‘Chandos amendment’, which enfranchised £50 tenants-at-will in English counties.
By the autumn, boosted by the success of the young Tory Lord Ashley in the high profile Dorset by-election, the Tories were insisting that there had been a ‘reaction’ against reform in the country. This was one of the arguments deployed in the House of Lords, where, after several nights of debate, the reform bill was rejected by 41 votes, 7 Oct. 1831. This was greeted with severe outbreaks of rioting in Bristol, where Wetherell barely escaped with his life, as well as in Derby and Nottingham. Ministers embarked on a series of negotiations, which continued well into the following year, with so-called Tory ‘waverers’, who were prepared to make concessions in order to stave off an even more radical reform bill.
A moderately revised bill was started in the Commons that winter, and narrowly passed the Lords on its second reading there (by nine votes), 13 Apr. 1832. However, Lord Lyndhurst’s wrecking amendment was agreed in committee, 7 May, and, when the king refused to make new peers to increase the government’s majority, Grey resigned. There followed the ‘days of May’, during which a huge public outcry prevented the duke of Wellington from forming a new government, not least because Sir Robert Peel refused to serve in it. Grey was reinstated, with the promise of royal backing for the bill: rather than see the Lords swamped by new Whig peers, the Tories capitulated and only 22 ‘diehards’ voted against the third reading. The opposition boycotted the royal assent in the Lords, as illustrated in the mezzotint (after Samuel William Reynolds) of ‘The Reform Bill receiving the King’s Assent by Royal Commission, 7 June 1832’ (NPG D10714).
The Reform Act of 1832 covered England and Wales, while separate bills were passed for Scotland and Ireland. The Boundary Acts defined the geographical extent of each constituency, in some cases altering them almost out of recognition. The Parliament also faced other major political issues, such as the Russian-Dutch loan, on which the ministry was nearly defeated in January 1832. There was much contentious legislation brought forward relating to Irish affairs; the most bitter controversy involved the vexed future of tithes, the subject of a lengthy select committee report. The anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Fowell Buxton brought enough pressure to bear when calling for the ending of colonial slavery in March 1832, for government to take up the question. The Conservatives, as they were now beginning to be called, not only set up an election headquarters (the ‘Charles Street gang’), but also established the Carlton Club as its headquarters (March 1832), while the Whigs also began the process of establishing a rudimentary party organization.