In the general election of 1 April 1880, the Conservative party under Benjamin Disraeli was crushingly defeated by the Liberals (known as Whigs) - under William Gladstone. Lord Granville, a moderate Whig, wrote to Queen Victoria who would, he knew, be bitterly disappointed by the decision of the electorate:
There is no doubt that the two statesmen hated each other. Disraeli referred to his rival in a letter to Lord Derby as '...that unprincipled maniac Gladstone - extraordinary mixture of envy, vindictiveness, hypocrisy and superstition'. And Gladstone more moderately said of his old enemy, 'the Tory party had principles by which it would and did stand for bad and for good. All this Dizzy destroyed'.
When Lord Granville wrote to Queen Victoria, Disraeli, born in 1804, had one more year to live; Gladstone, who was born in 1810, had another eighteen. They had been leaders of their respective parties since 1868, but were dominant figures long before that. They had very different social origins. Gladstone was a quintessential member of the rich upper middle class educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. Disraeli's parents were of Italian Jewish descent, his father was a distinguished man of letters, and the young Disraeli was brought up as an Anglican - 'the blank page between the Old Testament and the New', as he described himself.
Gladstone had always regarded the Church as his preferred profession, but was diverted by the offer of a safe Tory seat in 1832, though he remained deeply religious for the whole of his life. Disraeli was educated at obscure schools and never went to a university. As a young man he was dandified, debt-ridden, affected and extravagant. He wrote several bad novels to raise money to placate his creditors, and in 1838 he relieved his financial situation to some extent by marrying a rich widow. His youth was as disreputable as Gladstone's was respectable. Gladstone's role model was Sir Robert Peel, leader of the Conservative party; Disraeli's an amalgam of Burke, Bolingbroke and Byron. After several attempts as a radical he got into Parliament in 1837, as a Tory.
The duel begins
Sir Robert Peel, British Statesman and Prime Minister (1788-1850)
Peel won the election of 1841. Gladstone, as a rising young Tory, was given office. Disraeli, who had expected a government post, was not, and he never forgave Peel for this.
Hitherto Disraeli and Gladstone had had little occasion to notice each other. But in 1846 there occurred one of those rare convulsions in parliamentary life that shape politics for a generation. This was Peel's decision, as a result of the Irish famine of the late 1840s, to complete his policy of free trade by repealing the Corn Laws. These protected British agriculture from cheap foreign imports of grain - which could have alleviated some of the hardship in Ireland. They also, however, as many Conservatives believed, protected the livelihood of the party's sturdiest supporters, the agricultural interest, the farmers and landowners.
Disraeli saw this as an opportunity. Acting ostensibly as adjutant to Lord George Bentinck, the leader of those with landed interests, he made a series of brilliant attacks on Peel, who replied to them feebly and, as Gladstone said later, with a sort of 'righteous dullness'. Unluckily Gladstone, who, though still a minister, had lost his seat, was not in the House to support his hero.
The upshot of the party's split was that, though the Corn Laws were repealed, Peel was forced to resign. The party was divided into Peelites, largely leaderless, and Protectionists, led by the 14th Earl of' Derby - with Disraeli as his second-in-command. For the next 28 years, the Torys were to be the minority party, with occasional intervals in office.
The first of these was in 1852, giving Gladstone the opportunity to get his own back on Disraeli. The latter was briefly the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and finance, whether his own or the nation's, was not his forte. His budget was thought by many to be a disaster. Gladstone, who was now a member of the opposing Aberdeen coalition (consisting of Whigs, Peelites, radicals and independents, headed by Lord Aberdeen), tore it to pieces, and the Derby / Disraeli government fell. The duel had begun in earnest. Disraeli's task was to rebuild the party that he had himself done so much to destroy.