Disreali’s rapid assent to power, which was complete by the year 1868 when he took control of the Conservative party, is often perceived to have occurred in circumstances which diminish its value: he owed his eminence as leader of the party to the lack of alternative front-bench talent in a party which was to a large degree leaderless.
It is mainly for this reason, although there have been other significant contributing factors, that some historians believe that Disreali’s rise to power came as a result of luck. However, Disraeli possessed a unique ability to seize on favourable circumstances when they arose, and although luck played a part in presenting him with such chances, it was only his political skill and opportunistic nature, which allowed Disraeli to make the leadership his own.The split in the Conservative party which occurred in 1846 as a result of the repeal of the Corn Laws was certainly a stroke of luck for Disraeli. The repeal of the Corn Laws by Peel created great resentment amongst many MPs. The repeal augmented a split in the Conservative party which had already existed. Considering that many in the party, particularly the Peelites, detested Disraeli due to his bitter attacks on Peel in 1846, this split was seen by many incredibly fortunate for Disraeli.
It removed most of the more prominent members of the party, including Peel and Gladstone, leaving the Conservatives without a real backbone of leadership. By the end of the split there seemed to be no alternative to Disraeli.Most of those who had served under Peel, but who had not followed the Peelites in the split, were too old, and therefore Disraeli took on more importance in the party. Therefore, when Edward Stanley (later to become Earl Derby) offered Disraeli leadership of the Commons in 1849, the most important reason for him doing so was the lack of any alternative. In this way fortune certainly was on Disraeli’s side. Luck also presented itself to Disraeli in 1866 when the Liberal party split over the Reform Bill. The proposal of the Bill by the Liberals caused tension in the party.Those on the right of the party felt that the widespread democracy proposed represented a threat to the continuance of Parliament as a seat of national government.
Robert Lowe led a group of MPs known as the Adullamites in rebellion and defeated the government. This downturn in Liberal fortunes again was fortunate for Disraeli. It provided him with an opportunity to weaken the Liberals further and strengthen his own position in the Conservative party.
However, without the unique ability to seize on such opportunities when they arose, it is unlikely that Disraeli’s rise to power would have been as rapid as it turned out to be.Disraeli was most definitely a political opportunist. In spite of the publication of his ideological novels Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred it has been argued that Disraeli was motivated entirely by seizing the political advantage and manipulating situations to his advantage. Feuchtwanger has been one particularly strong advocate of the idea of Disraeli as a political opportunist. This was perhaps primarily seen in Disraeli’s stance towards the Peel Corn Laws.
Disraeli favoured a policy of protectionism and formed part of a conservative majority who opposed the Corn Laws. Disraeli saw that if the party was split he would emerge as one of its focal points.This is not to say that he set about deliberately splitting the Conservative party with his attacks on Peel. But he was one of the leaders of the ‘Young England’ movement which ruthlessly criticised Peel’s government and when the opportunity arose in 1846 to remove Peel, he sided with the protectionists. Disraeli’s marriage to Mary Anne Evans has also been pointed to as a further case of opportunism. Twelve years older than him, some have argued that Disraeli merely married her to fund his political career.
Disraeli’s Reform Act of 1867 though was perhaps the best case of his political opportunism. Indeed, Cowling has stated that ‘Disraeli’s was a policy of consistent opportunism’, arguing that Disraeli moved towards the issue of reform not because an extension of suffrage was an issue with which he had a particular sympathy for, but simply because it was pressurised by events.Firstly it can be argued that Disraeli manipulated the situation in order to remain first in line for the leadership of the party. Disraeli believed that if he and Derby could get the Bill passed then their position would be sealed, meaning that if their principle rivals, Cranborne and Peel wanted to dislodge them then they would once again have to tear the party apart. Machin portrays the idea of Disraeli as a calculating opportunist further, stating that he put forward the Reform Bill as a means to ‘divide and weaken Liberal forces.’ Disraeli astutely realised that by implementing a radical reform act he could accentuate and prolong the Liberal split and therefore cement the Conservatives’ position in power.Although opportunism certainly played an important part in Disraeli’s rise to power, it must be argued that this was only one of the skills which he possessed as a politician.
Disraeli’s skill can be witnessed in that as Chancellor he took large steps towards modernising the party. His 1852 budget conceded support for free trade, cut malt tax in a bid to appease landowners and increased income tax, in an attempt to construct a wider appeal amongst the ordinary voters. These proposals were most unusual for a Conservative budget and were responsible for the modernisation of the party which allowed the Conservatives to become an electable party again.
Disraeli also possessed great skills as a political orator. This was witnessed in his attacks on Peel over the Corn Laws and generally he was a convincing speaker. However, he lacked the ability to produce anything as convincing as Gladstone’s Midlothian Speeches for example, but he was aware of this and therefore ensured that he did not attempt to deliver out of his depth.The fact that he overcame his religious background, as well as coming from a background which was less moneyed than that of most conservative ministers(he only turned to literature as a career because he was so desperate for money), clearly highlights that Disraeli was not a man who rose to power through luck. Certain elements of his climb ‘up the greasy pole’ are said to have contained a certain degree of luck, including the split of the conservative party in 1846.
However, Disraeli always used his opportunism and skill to make the best of these opportunities when they arose. He was a skilful politician and his modernisation of the conservative party clearly highlights this.