There can be little doubt that the disintegration of Grey’s fragile cabinet had been prompted by the single issue of the Irish Church. Those who had been persuaded that the Church was too large for its own stability carried on; those who resisted any reduction in its size resigned. Reducing the Irish Church and appropriating surplus revenue for Catholic purposes was seen by the one group as essential to the preservation of the Establishment, and by the other as destructive of that Establishment. Despite the charges levied by the defectors, by Peel and by historians since, the government that carried on until 1841 was not fundamentally different in outlook from Grey’s but for the difference on how to save the Church. The King’s dismissal of Melbourne’s ministry and electoral defeats in 1835 and 1837 would force the new ministry into a parliamentary alliance with Radicals and make the job of resisting any but moderate and timely reforms more difficult, but post-Grey Whiggism was neither Radical by nature nor Radically led. The determination to steer a moderate, safe path between ‘destructive’ reform and the Tory reaction that would provoke such destruction characterised Melbourne’s government as it had Grey’s. The difference between the two lay in the definition of the boundary on that one question. The picture of the new government painted by Peel and Stanley has Melbourne leading a group of aimless wanderers who were prepared to desert all of Grey’s principles in order to hold office. But the reality was quite different. As soon as the King’s experiment in personal interference was over, Melbourne’s government would act with Peel’s consent as much as Grey’s had done. Melbourne had little of his predecessor’s dogmatism, but it would be a mistake to confuse his lapses into indecision with indolence or lack of purpose. His was the role of the arbitrator. Few politicians in the 1830s were reformers by nature, and it is a measure of Melbourne’s statesmanship that he allowed reason to overcome prejudice when convinced of its necessity.2 He spoke little at cabinet meetings,3 preferring to chair rather than direct, and the result was to restore the harmony and discipline that Grey’s cabinet had lacked.
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- 3.A. Aspinall, ‘The Cabinet Council’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 1952, vol. 38, p. 193.Google Scholar