Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

Britain went to the polls on 6 December 1923 in one of the strangest and most fascinating general elections in history. From its calling, to its result, to the government that was formed after it, to the huge long term consequences, the December 1923 election is a bit special despite it being the middle one of a sequence of three elections in three years. It also has some echoes of modern politics, as the relationship between Conservatism and Liberalism, the electoral system, and Britain’s trading arrangements were all up in the air.

The first odd thing about the 1923 election was that it was entirely unnecessary. The 1922 election seemed to settle the political future for a while, with the Conservatives winning an overall majority sufficient to last a full term, and neither Liberal nor Labour seeming plausible as alternative governments. Further, it had been 42 years since the last exclusively Tory government with a Commons majority had lost office in the 1880 election. But the Prime Minister, Andrew Bonar Law, was dying and stepped down in May 1923 to be replaced by Stanley Baldwin.

Baldwin was an unlikely radical – an industrialist who cultivated the image of a pig-farming midlands country gentleman – but he made the surprising decision to call for Tariff Reform, a policy that had proved unpopular in pre-war elections and had been ruled out by Bonar Law at the 1922 hustings. The tariff debate led quickly to a General Election called on the issue of free trade or tariffs. Some Conservatives suggested a referendum on Tariff Reform, which – as with Europe in the 1970s and now – might have been an elegant way out of the dilemma. In any case, there was no urgency and the Baldwin government could have tried to build the case for tariffs with public opinion before going for an election.

In 1923, the press had not been squared, and the middle class was quite unprepared, for Baldwin’s lurch toward Tariff Reform and the election into which he tumbled. Even the pro-tariff press refused to endorse the Conservatives in the election, because he did not promise their favoured model of tariffs that included an Empire free trade zone. Significant numbers of Conservatives, particularly in Lancashire, supported free trade. The most plausible explanation of events is the simplest – that Baldwin had indeed been convinced that tariffs were necessary and that he believed that the Conservatives could win an election and introduce them.

The Liberal Party had been torn asunder in the previous seven years by bitter personal rivalry between Asquith and Lloyd George and an overlapping division between right and left. But they could all agree on the old rallying-call of Free Trade, and rapidly pulled themselves together and fought a vigorous but almost entirely negative and defensive campaign. Baldwin had, ironically, forced the Liberals together. Meanwhile Labour, the official opposition, was steadily building strength in industrial Britain.

The Liberal upsurge created a strange election result. In some ways it was a Conservative victory. The Tories were the largest single party in terms of seats (258 seats, compared to 191 for Labour and 159 Liberals) and also in votes, with 38 per cent of the votes cast compared to about 30 per cent each for Labour and the Liberals.

One of the paths not chosen in 1923 was that of Conservative-Liberal coalition, even though Beatrice Webb, looking at the situation before the election, felt that a hung parliament would mean ‘a coalition between the free trade Conservatives and Liberals: an anti-Labour government with Labour and disgruntled Liberals as His Majesty’s Opposition’.

There was some political logic to this. The Conservatives and Liberals had been co-operating against Labour in municipal elections since 1919, and the Tories had been in coalition with at least part of the Liberal Party from 1915 to 1922. The 1923 election could easily be read not as a radical moment, but a profoundly conservative one, with the Liberal surge caused by fear of change and the Labour advance simply a matter of increasing organisation and class-consciousness. A free trade, safety first Tory-Liberal government would have fit the national mood quite well.

It may have appeared logical simply to dump Tariff Reform and probably Baldwin too, and form a minority government with Liberal toleration. But the party was weary of long years of coalition and distrusted its main supporters like Austen Chamberlain and Lord Birkenhead. Getting rid of Baldwin might have meant a split – it was a period in which all the parties had acute problems with disunity and there was no guarantee that many Tories would accept a replacement’s authority and fall into line with a Con-Lib coalition. Neither were most Liberals very keen to keep the Conservatives in power.

Several desperate options were considered in the period between the election and the convening of parliament in January 1924 to shut Labour out. But Baldwin and Asquith both accepted the legitimacy of Labour’s claim to govern, and felt that the circumstances of 1924 offered the safest conditions possible for a mild dose of ‘socialism’, and would with any luck acculturate Labour into the ways of Whitehall.

On 18 December Asquith announced that the Liberals would support a Labour amendment to the King’s Speech, effectively guaranteeing that Labour would form a government. Because Labour would not discuss coalition, it would be a minority government. Asquith and the Liberals at that point hoped that the 1923 parliament would last several years, notch up several useful reforming achievements, build good working relations between Liberal and Labour and perhaps cement it with electoral reform such as the Alternative Vote. He was to be brutally disappointed.

Asquith underestimated the extent to which the Labour and Conservative Parties were united in despising the Liberals as devious, sanctimonious and ineffective, and increasingly realised that they shared an interest in destroying the Liberal Party and dividing its political territory between themselves. Leo Amery advised Baldwin that ‘the real healthy and natural division of parties in this country is between constructive Conservatism on the one side and on the other Labour-Socialism. Make it clear we’ll never support the Liberals.’

Although the Liberal success in 1923 produced the most three-party parliament we have ever had, it was ironically dependent on the incompleteness of three party politics in the country. Liberal gains from the Conservatives across the South West and the southern Midlands depended on an absence of Labour competition, while their continued footholds in the industrial areas were often on the basis of pacts with the local Conservatives. Labour’s aspirations to become a national party, standing candidates in the suburbs and rural areas, meant that there was a Sword of Damocles hanging over many Liberal winners in 1923. Some Liberals now started to recognise the importance of electoral reform to the future of their party, but neither the Conservatives nor Labour was willing to play along. Hugh Dalton hoped as early as 19 January 1924 that ‘we shall be able to avoid giving the Liberals either Proportional Representation or the Alternative Vote in this Parliament. Then they mayn’t live to ask for either in the next.’

The 1923-24 Parliament was a miserable experience for Liberal MPs, who on the face of it had enjoyed an electoral triumph and held the balance of power. They trooped through the division lobbies in favour of measures they had no part in drawing up, in the interests of a party that was openly contemptuous of them and was increasingly organising against them in their constituencies. The 2010-15 Parliament is a jolly romp in comparison.

The end of the Labour government of 1924 was, like its predecessor, essentially suicide rather than murder. The purpose of the 1924 government was to show that Labour could govern, and the purpose of the October 1924 election was to destroy the Liberal Party, and in this it was a success. The Liberals tumbled to 40 seats and were relegated to their position as third party. Baldwin returned in triumph, his blunder of December 1923 redeemed by a victory in 1924 that bears comparison in its scale with Tony Blair’s of 1997. But Labour’s electoral support also increased and Labour became the largest party in Parliament at the next election, May 1929.

While Baldwin had united the Liberals in December 1923, Macdonald and Asquith united the Conservatives during 1924. The ex-coalitionists who had remained aloof from the post-1922 Tory government came back into the fold, and the Tories also drew in several right wing Liberals such as Winston Churchill who stood as ‘Constitutionalist’ in October 1924 as a half-way house between Liberal and Conservative.  The history of the Conservative Party shows that it has often sailed into power accompanied by a flotilla of MPs elected under various flags of convenience. Between 1874 and 1979 all Conservative majorities came with at least one or two MPs, often a lot more, who were not technically Tories. Even in the 1950s, as well as the National Liberals who were fully integrated with the Conservatives some of the remaining Liberal MPs owed their survival to local electoral pacts, as in Bolton and Huddersfield.

The 2010-15 Parliament, unless some sort of National Liberal grouping of the sort favoured by Nick Boles is created, would be unique in Conservative-Liberal coalition history in not producing some sort of realignment of politicians and voting blocs of lasting benefit to the Conservatives. Long periods of Conservative ascendancy have often been achieved at least in part thanks to the infusion of support and ideas from the right wing of the Liberal Party, as in 1886-1905 and 1918-45. The Liberal Unionists, the Liberal recruits of the 1920s and the post-1931 Liberal Nationals have all added strength to the Tories, initially as non-Tories but with a constant tendency to draw closer to the Conservatives until the parties become indistinguishable. Conservative strength in the working class Midlands, Nonconformist Yorkshire and the South West would not be there without some cross-fertilisation from the Liberals.

In many ways, December 1923 was an election from a distant age, but it has some modern resonances. The Conservatives’ enthusiasm for Tariff Reform can be compared with modern Euroscepticism, and the Liberals’ for electoral reform needs no updating; the 38-30 score-line between Conservative and Labour is rather like the 2010 election. Baldwin’s ability to fashion the silk purse of making the Conservatives the natural party of government out of the sow’s ear of the election blunder should be an example for any party leader in a hung parliament. But perhaps more than anything, 1923-24 reminds one of the intricate relationship between conservatism, liberalism and the Conservative Party, a story that is far from over.

Further reading

Chris Cook The Age of Alignment: Electoral Politics in Britain 1922-29 (Macmillan, 1975)

G.R. Searle Country Before Party: Coalition and the Idea of National Government in Modern Britain 1885-1987 (Longman, 1995)

Stuart Ball Portrait of a Party: The Conservative Party in Britain 1918-45 (OUP, 2013)