Sir Robert Peel and Theresa May

As the Brexit crisis deepened still further at the start of April , an earlier Tory crisis was recalled in the media—that caused by Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Alistair Lexden compared the two crises in a letter published in The Times on April 4.

Sir, Mrs May now “wants to secure Brexit with help from Labour” (report, Apr.3). The crucial vote on Sir Robert Peel’s  legislation to repeal the Corn Laws in February 1846  was carried with the help of 227 Liberals who came to the aid of 112 Peel supporters; 231 Tories voted against. Is history about to repeat itself so that the interests of the nation as a whole can again be served?

Ever since then, leading Tories have striven to avoid following Peel’s example. Rab Butler shied away from blocking Lord Home’s move for the premiership in order to get the job himself in October 1963 because “the story of Sir Robert Peel splitting the Tory Party was for me the supremely unforgettable political lesson of history”. Sir John Major has spoken of how he too was haunted by that lesson during the ferocious party battle over the Maastricht treaty in 1993. Is it now about to be set aside by the hapless Mrs May? When Peel resigned ,a huge crowd lined Whitehall and cheered him all the way to the Commons. That perhaps is more than Mrs May could expect.

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian