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Template:Politics of the United Kingdom

The Peelites (or 'Liberal Conservatives' as they were also occasionally known) are those MPs and Peers who remained loyal to British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel following the break up of the British Conservative Party on the issue of abolishing the Corn Laws in 1846. Their opponents within the party preferred to call themselves Protectionists - though they would later relabel themselves as Conservatives in the next decade.

The Peelites were characterised by commitment to Free Trade and a managerial, almost technocratic, approach to government. Though they sought to maintain the principles of the Conservative Party, Peelites disagreed with the major wing of that party, the Tory landed interest, on issues of trade; in particular, the issue of whether agricultural prices should be artificially kept high by tariffs.

In 1845, facing a serious famine in Ireland, Peel sought to lower food prices by repealing the Corn Laws. He was able to carry the repeal vote in the House of Commons, but only at the price of splitting the Conservative Party; a split which led to the fall of Peel's government in June 1846, and its replacement by a Whig government led by Lord John Russell.

Numbering about a third of the old Conservative party following the 1847 general election, the Peelites as a parliamentary force continued under the leadership of Peel. Their main political positions remained initially closer to the Protectionist Conservatives rather than the Whig and Radicals in parliament except on the issue of Free Trade . However , personalities also came into play - the split had also been very bitter on a personal level - the attacks on Peel by the protectionist conservatives like Lord George Bentinck and Benjamin Disraeli were not forgotten easily. This explains why even after Disraeli and the Earl of Derby who was now leading the Conservative Party were unable to bring about a re-union even when the officially abandoned protection after 1852.

The leading members of the Peelite faction that developed after the 1846 split of the Conservative Party were:

Following Peel's death in 1850 after a horse riding accident , the Peelite faction was led by Lord Aberdeen, who became the only Peelite prime minister in 1852 by forming a government in coalition with the Whigs. This government fell in 1855 as a result of the unpopularity of the Crimean War.

After delay with the Conservatives attempted to form a government , the former Canningite Viscount Palmeston became Prime Minister. His goverment initially included several leading Peelites including Gladstone, Cardwell, and Herbert in cabinet posts . However within a month they had resigned on the issue of setting up a parliamentary commission to investigate the events leading up to the Crimean war but other Peelites in cabinet posts like the Duke of Argyll preferred to stay on . The Peelites maintained their group for the next couple of years though by the 1857 election their numbers in the House of Commons had shrunk to 18 from around 40 held at the 1852 election . During all this time some of went back to the Conservatives whilst a few others headed off towards the Whigs. The remainder preferred to remain independent and soon found themselves in opposition to Palmeston's government.

The Peelites finally disappeared as a party when they agreed to join forces with the Whigs , Radicals and Irish Brigade MPs to bring down the Conservative government of Earl of Derby in 1859 . This collaboration after a meeting at the Wills tea rooms also marks the birth of the British Liberal party as well as the end of the Peelites as a separate political entity. All their remaining leaders then took office in the subsequent government of Viscount Palmeston.

  • Jones, Wilbur Devereux and Arvel B. Erickson. The Peelites 1846-1857. Columbus, OH : Ohio State University, 1972.

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