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.

Screen shot 2015-04-16 at 23.10.25The Conservative Prime Minister had lost the election, sort of, despite commanding the largest single block of votes in the Commons. The problem was that even with his Liberal allies he could not overcome the combined forces against him, disparate as they were and fragmented into the tired and divided main opposition party and an assortment of left wing and nationalist elements. What to do – to soldier on and meet parliament, or resign and let the other side try to form a government?

I am sure that most of my readers will want to believe that the Conservatives will win the election on May 7, even though the definition of ‘win’ seems to have been radically revised downwards in recent years from meaning an overall majority to being just the largest single party. Enough has been written elsewhere, some of it by me, about how coalitions, hung parliaments and the new and awkwardly written Fixed Term Parliaments Act will work in the post-election period. But the point of this column is to provide a longer term perspective, and my first paragraph is about what happened after the election of July 1892.

The 1892 election result has some parallels with many of the scenarios for May 2015. The Gladstonian Liberals won 272 seats to 313 for the outgoing Conservative-Liberal Unionist alliance. The balance of power was held by the 81 Irish Nationalists (although the movement was temporarily split between the majority and the 9 Parnellite MPs). Adding to the mix was a sprinkling of labour representatives, notably Keir Hardie, who had gained West Ham South. Although the Unionists were the largest single bloc of seats, there was a majority in the Commons that could sustain a Liberal government, with the Irish and the labour representatives giving their general support.

In a peculiar August session, the Conservatives decided to face the Commons with a Queen’s Speech. It was a strange Queen’s Speech, with no proposed legislation but with the vague promise that her government would continue to ‘advance in the path of useful and beneficent legislation, which has been so judiciously followed in previous Sessions’ once parliament resumed in the autumn. Even the funding arrangements for all the promises in the 2015 manifesto are clear by comparison…

The Unionists, on the one hand, knew very well that they would lose the vote and be thrown out of office; but, on the other hand, wanted to argue the toss. It was arguably not really cricket – and the precedents of 1868, 1874 and 1880 when governments had walked when given ‘out’ were cited against them – but they were determined to make their point.

They met the House simply to put their multifarious opponents in the position of having to troop through the division lobbies to throw them out. The 1890s were a less image-conscious age, admittedly. The Prime Minister was a resplendently fat, bearded and rather lazy aristocrat, and his imminent successor was an austere 82-year old who had first joined the Cabinet nearly 50 years ago and Prime Minister a generation ago – think of today’s two main parties led in 2015 by Nicholas Soames and Denis Healey and you are part of the way there.

But the parties still paid attention to the optics of the situation. Rather than resigning at the election, and leaving Queen Victoria to her unwelcome task of summoning Gladstone – yet again – and installing him as Prime Minister, Salisbury was going to ensure that the new government did not have that symbolic blessing, but would be an obvious product of the votes of Irish nationalism.

The debate that followed was surreal, resembling the reported instances of decapitated heads communicating after execution by guillotine. Because the Prime Minister was in the Lords, Arthur Balfour led for the government in the Commons as First Lord of the Treasury (perhaps only in discussing British constitutional history can such a sentence be meaningful). He argued:

‘The present Government are in a minority, but who is in a majority?…The outgoing Government, and the House generally, have a right to review the situation, and to estimate the forces that are arrayed for and against them; to consider the position in which the country at large is placed; what are the prospects of a future administration and future legislation…’

Balfour jibed at the Liberals opposite that ‘I have called the hon Gentlemen below the Gangway [the Irish Nationalists] the allies and masters of the Party opposite’, and argued that the outgoing government had a useful record of social reform and that, under the Liberals, social legislation would be subordinated to Home Rule: ‘They will be sick, and sick very soon, of Nationalist domination.’

The outgoing Chancellor of 1886-92, George Goschen, is remembered mostly for being forgotten: when Randolph Churchill resigned in December 1886 he calculated that he was indispensable but, as he ruefully reflected when his replacement was found ‘I forgot Goschen’. People did, despite his Zelig-like tendency (reminiscent of Reggie Maudling and Ernie Marples) to turn up at important moments. He invented the first road tax, for instance, and was both cerebral and a tough debater; the Pall Mall Gazette guide to the 1892 election noted that:

“A story is told of Mr Goschen’s school-days at Rugby which illustrates a side of his character that has been uppermost of late. He was being bullied or chaffed about his Jewish descent, and promptly settled the matter by knocking his opponent down.”

His parliamentary career was a varied one. He was a Liberal MP for the City of London from 1863 until 1880, then for Ripon between 1880 and 1885 and then for Edinburgh East between 1885 and 1886, becoming a Liberal Unionist in the great split. He was appointed Chancellor without having a seat in Parliament, attempted to get back in at a by-election for Liverpool Exchange and was finally returned at another by-election in the very specifically-named central London seat of St George’s Hanover Square.

Like another Chancellor, Winston Churchill in 1924, he joined the government in a personal capacity rather than as part of a Liberal Unionist group, and was completing his transition from Liberal to Conservative in 1887.

Goschen has a historical claim to have invented two of the staple references of today’s discussions about devolution – the Barnett formula and the West Lothian Question. The Barnett formula of 1979 was a more equitable replacement for Goschen’s mechanism of 1886 for distributing public spending among the component parts of the UK. During the 1892 confidence debate Goschen also criticised the current Home Rule proposals in terms that are now familiar, commenting that Irish MPs at Westminster:
‘are to be concerned in the domestic legislation of the Irish people, but also in the domestic legislation of Great Britain, although they have not the same interest as England and Scotland in that legislation’.

Not all the contributions from the Unionist side were as cogent. The backbench MP for Colchester, Captain Naylor-Leyland, argued that to be a legitimate united government:

“It is absolutely necessary that the programme of the hon Members opposite as a whole should be endorsed by every individual Member, and conversely that the programme of every individual Member should be endorsed by the Party as a whole.’

This novel doctrine has not passed into general constitutional usage, although disguised forms of it were frequently used in 1910-14 to impugn the votes cast in those nominal hung parliaments as a result of deal-making between Liberals, Labour and the Irish.

The Liberals could afford to be relaxed and wait for the inevitable vote that would put them into power. Liberal backbenchers did not speak in the debate – other than Dadabhai Naoroji making his maiden speech as MP for Finsbury Central – but left it to Gladstone and the party’s rising star, Herbert Asquith. Gladstone applied some logic to the idea of England being overruled – the preponderance of England was such that the other components of the Union could make a difference only when English opinion was closely divided:

Now, Sir, England can never be coerced even by the joint action of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, in questions where she has a strong, deliberate and clear conviction… Such as the relation of these three Kingdoms that England in itself contains, I suppose, nearly three-fourths of the population and wealth of the entire aggregate. What is the lesson that ought to be learnt from this state of things? England in that combination has a giant’s strength, and the lesson to be learnt is that she should not use it like a giant.

By far the best speech was Asquith’s, who mocked the Unionists without mercy:

“Upon the principles of true Unionism, which hon. Members opposite profess, but which they seem very slow in crucial cases to put into practice, when you are considering upon what lines the government and the policy of the Kingdom as a whole should be conducted, you are bound to look to the majority of the whole of the electorate and to nothing else.”

Asquith also pointed out the irony in a government that had itself existed as a result of a pact between Conservatives and Liberal Unionists criticising their successors for being an alliance of different factions. He scorned the Tories for:

“a course of peddling and huckstering in what you call progressive legislation. You have done so in order that you might keep step with a small but dwindling band of deserters from the Liberal camp… in deference to this transient and precarious alliance, the Tory Party have gone in for a course of legislative experiments which were too liberal for their own consciences, but not liberal enough for the people of Great Britain… to betray your pledges, to be false to your past, and then to find that the wages of ignominy is a minority, that is to be guilty of one of those blunders which in politics are worse than a crime.”

The debate ended on 11 August with one of the great divisions of Parliamentary history, at which turnout among MPs was near-complete. The vote of no confidence was passed by 350 Ayes to 310 Noes, and Gladstone took office for a fourth time.

Illustration above: William Goschen, the Liberal Unionist who Randolph Churchill “forgot”, and who has a claim to have invented both the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian Question. From the Pall Mall Gazette Guide to the 1892 election.