Cabinet reshuffles and ministerial by-elections in the 19th century

Following last week’s Cabinet reshuffle, several ministers will be getting to grips with the challenges of their new departments. However, unlike the nineteenth century, they are at least spared the extra burden of seeking renewed endorsement from their constituents. Under a law passed in the reign of Queen Anne (1707), anyone accepting ‘an office of profit under the Crown’ – which included not only ministerial posts, but also a wide range of lesser positions – had to vacate his parliamentary seat and seek re-election. Those moving between offices also faced a by-election. In 1859 Thomas Milner Gibson had to stand twice in quick succession for Ashton-under-Lyne: on 27 June, after being appointed as president of the Poor Law Board, and then again on 9 July after being moved to the presidency of the Board of Trade. Ministerial by-elections made up more than a quarter of all by-elections taking place between 1832 and 1867.

In Milner Gibson’s case, he was returned unopposed on both occasions in 1859. Other ministers also had a smooth return to the House. When Sir Charles Christopher Pepys was appointed to a post in Melbourne’s ministry in 1835, his constituents at Malton assured him that he had their continued confidence, and that he need not attend the necessary by-election that May. The York Herald praised the new Attorney-General, Sir Roundell Palmer, for his ‘good taste’ in actually turning up to speak to the electors when he was re-elected at Richmond in October 1863, as proceedings could have been managed in his absence. Pepys and Palmer were in the enviable position of representing safe seats, small pocket boroughs under the control of Earl Fitzwilliam (Malton) and the Earl of Zetland (Richmond). But they were by no means alone in not facing a challenge: in most cases opponents did not contest these by-elections, particularly those that took place soon after a general election.

Even so, not all ministers had such an easy time of it. Winston Churchill was famously rejected by the electors of North-West Manchester when he was appointed as President of the Board of Trade in 1908, before being found a suitable berth at Dundee. He was certainly not the first high profile casualty of a ministerial by-election. Lord John Russell, the new Home Secretary (and future Prime Minister), was defeated at South Devon in May 1835. William Gladstone, appointed as Colonial Secretary, abandoned his candidature for Newark in irritation after a protectionist opponent came forward in January 1846, and although his name was subsequently linked with numerous other constituencies, he remained out of the Commons until the next general election in 1847.

The law requiring ministers to seek re-election was finally revoked in 1926, although there had been efforts to do away with it before this. A significant amendment was made in 1867, when it was decided that ministers should not have to seek re-election for a second time if they switched offices, as had been the case for Milner Gibson. Interestingly William Wrightson, a long-serving Whig MP, had received short shrift when he had suggested this reform in the 1850s. The Daily News, which condemned what it regarded as a bill ‘to facilitate the power of shuffling, and otherwise changing without assignable cause, persons holding office’, evidently had no more fondness for Cabinet reshuffles than those individuals who were demoted last week.

Suggested further reading:

  • Alfred B. Beaven, ‘List of opposed elections on taking office’, English Historical Review, 26: 101 (1911), pp. 139-48.
  • Martin Pugh, ‘“Queen Anne is dead”: The Abolition of Ministerial By-Elections, 1867-1926’, Parliamentary History, 21: 3 (2002), pp. 351-66.
  • P. Readman and T. Otte (eds.), By-elections in British politics, 1832-1914 (forthcoming, 2013) [chapter by Angus Hawkins on ministerial by-elections]
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