By John Charmley (auth.)
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Extra info for A History of Conservative Politics, 1900–1996
By 1907 a majority of constituency organizations had come out in favour of tariffs, and even the languid Balfour had to agree that the issue was one which ought to be pressed on the government. To the Confederates this was too little and too late. With Campbell-Bannerman's administration foiled in many of its plans by the House of Lords, and losing seats in by-elections (including, to every Conservative's delight, Churchill's in 1908), Unionist Party managers began to indulge in daydreams of a healthy majority in the next election.
They may have had 272 seats to the Liberals' 274 but the 84 Irish Nationalists and 42 Labour MPs now held the balance of parliamentary power. This, of course, was nothing new. Salisbury had faced similar, if less favourable arithmetic in 1885, but this time there was no chance of the Liberal Party splitting. Representing, as they did, the majority of English seats, and conscious of having taken 116 seats from the Liberals, it was galling in the extreme for the Unionists to find themselves still in opposition because of Irish votes; it was a position they found nearly intolerable, not least because of its implications.
As we have seen, it had little effect on the outcome of the election, but it irritated the Chamberlainites enormously. 42 Austen Chamberlain described it as 'a slap in the face', 43 and the experience helped convince even that mild-mannered man that Balfour's leadership had not long to run. When the Unionist frontbenchers met on 21 July to consider their reaction to the news that Asquith now possessed guarantees from the King that sufficient peerages would be created to pass the Parliament Bill, Balfour recommended acquiescence; fourteen of his colleagues went along with him, but eight dissented.