The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 12

The Gathering of Clouds.

Throughout June and the first week of July the affairs of the Ministry went on successfully, in spite of the social sins of the Duke and the occasional despair of the Duchess. There had been many politicians who had thought, or had, at any rate, predicted that the Coalition Ministry would not live a month. There had been men, such as Lord Fawn on one side and Mr Boffin on the other, who had found themselves stranded disagreeably — with no certain position — unwilling to sit behind a Treasury bench from which they were excluded, and too shy to place themselves immediately opposite. Seats beneath the gangway were, of course, open to such of them as were members of the Lower House and those seats had to be used; but they were not accustomed to sit beneath the gangway. These gentlemen had expected that the seeds of weakness, of which they had perceived a scattering, would grow at once into an enormous crop of blunders, difficulties, and complications; but, for a while, the Ministry were saved from these dangers either by the energy of the Prime Minister, or the popularity of his wife, or perhaps by the sagacity of the elder Duke; — so that there grew up an idea that the Coalition was really the proper thing. In one respect it certainly was successful. The Home Rulers, or Irish party generally, were left without an inch of standing ground. Their support was not needed, and therefore they were not courted. For the moment there was not even a necessity to pretend that Home Rule was anything but an absurdity from beginning to end; — so much so that one or two leading Home Rulers, men who had taken up the cause not only that they might become Members of Parliament, but with some further idea of speech-making and popularity, declared that the Coalition had been formed merely with a view of putting down Ireland. This capability of dispensing with a generally intractable element of support was felt to be a great comfort. Then, too, there was a set in the House — at that moment not a very numerous set — who had been troublesome friends to the old Liberal party, and which the Coalition was able, if not to ignore, at any rate to disregard. These were the staunch economists, and argumentative philosophical Radicals — men of standing and repute, who are always in doubtful times individually flattered by Ministers, who have great privileges accorded to them of speaking and dividing, and who are not unfrequently even thanked for their rods by the very owners of the backs which bear the scourges. These men could not be quite set aside by the Coalition as were the Home Rules. It was not even yet, perhaps, wise to count them out, or to leave them to talk to the benches absolutely empty; — but the tone of flattery with which they had been addressed became gradually less warm; and when the scourges were wielded, ministerial backs took themselves out of the way. There grew up unconsciously a feeling of security against attack which was distasteful to these gentlemen, and was in itself perhaps a little dangerous. Gentlemen bound to support the Government, when they perceived that there was comparatively but little to do, and that little might easily be done, became careless, and, perhaps a little contemptuous. So that the great popular orator, Mr Turnbull, found himself compelled to rise in his seat, and ask whether the noble Duke at the head of the Government thought himself strong enough to rule without attention to parliamentary details. The question was asked with an air of inexorable severity, and was intended to have deep signification. Mr Turnbull had disliked the Coalition from the beginning; but then Mr Turnbull always disliked everything. He had so accustomed himself to wield the constitutional cat-of-nine-tails, that heaven will hardly be happy to him unless he be allowed to flog the cherubim. Though the party with which he was presumed to act had generally been in power since he had been in the House, he had never allowed himself to agree with a Minister on any point. And as he had never been satisfied with a Liberal Government, it was not probable that he should endure a Coalition in silence. At the end of a rather lengthy speech, he repeated his question, and then sat down, taking his place with all that constitutional indignation, which becomes the parliamentary flagellator of the day. The little jokes with which Sir Orlando answered him were very well in their way. Mr Turnbull did not care much whether he were answered or not. Perhaps the jauntiness of Sir Orlando, which implied that the Coalition was too strong to regard attack, somewhat irritated outsiders. But there certainly grew up from that moment a feeling among such men as Erle and Rattler that care was necessary, that the House, taken as a whole, was not in a condition to be manipulated with easy freedom, and that Sir Orlando must be made to understand that he was not strong enough to depend on such jauntiness. The jaunty statesman must be very sure of his personal following. There was a general opinion that Sir Orlando had not brought the Coalition well out of the first real attack which had been made upon it.

‘Well, Phineas; how do you like the Phoenix?’ Phineas Finn had flown back to London at the instigation of probably Mr Rattler, and was now standing at the window of Brook’s club with Barrington Erle. It was near nine one Thursday evening, and they were both about to return to the House.

‘I don’t like the Castle, if you mean that.’

‘Tyrone isn’t troublesome, surely.’ The Marquis of Tyrone was the Lord Lieutenant of the day, and had in his time been a very strong Conservative.

‘He finds me troublesome, I fear,’

‘I don’t wonder at that, Phineas.’

‘How should it be otherwise? What can he and I have in sympathy with one another? He has been brought up with all the Orangeman’s hatred for a Papist. Now that he is in high office, he can abandon the display of the feeling — perhaps the feeling itself as regards the country at large. He knows that it doesn’t become a Lord Lieutenant to be Orange. But how can he put himself into a boat with me?’

‘All that kind of thing vanishes when a man is in high office.’

‘Yes, as a rule; because men go together into office with the same general predilections. Is it too hot to walk down?’

‘I’ll walk a little way — till you make me hot by arguing.’

‘I haven’t an argument left in me,’ said Phineas. ‘Of course everything over there seems easy enough now — so easy that Lord Tyrone evidently imagines that the good times are coming back in which governors may govern and not be governed.’

‘You are pretty quiet in Ireland now, I suppose; — no martial law, suspension of the habeas corpus, or anything of that kind, just at present?’

‘No; thank goodness!’ said Phineas.

‘I’m not quite sure whether a general suspension of the habeas corpus would not upon the whole be the most comfortable state of things for Irishmen themselves. But whether good or bad, you’ve nothing of that kind of thing now. You’ve no great measure that you wish to pass?’

‘But they’ve a great measure that they wish to pass.’

‘They know better than that. They don’t want to kill their golden goose.’

‘The people, who are infinitely ignorant of all political work, do want it. There are counties which, if you were to poll the people, Home Rule would carry nearly every voter — except the members themselves.’

‘You wouldn’t give it them?’

‘Certainly not; — any more than I would allow a son to ruin himself because he asked me. But I would endeavour to teach them that they get nothing by Home Rule — that their taxes would be heavier, the property less secure, their lives less safe, their general position more debased, and their chances of national success more remote than ever.’

‘You can never teach them, except by the slow lesson of habit. The Heptarchy didn’t mould itself into a nation in a day.’

‘Men were governed then, and could be an were moulded. I feel sure that even in Ireland there is a stratum of men, above the working peasants, who would understand, and make those below them understand, the position of the country, if they could only be got to give up the feeling about religion. Even now Home Rule is regarded by the multitude as a weapon to be used against Protestantism in behalf of the Pope.’

‘I suppose the Pope is the great sinner?’

‘They got over the Pope in France — even in early days, before religion had become a farce in the country. They have done so in Italy.’

‘Yes; — they have got over the Pope in Italy, certainly.’

‘And yet,’ said Phineas, ‘the bulk of the people are staunch Catholics. Of course the same attempt to maintain a temporal influence, with the hope of recovering temporal power, is made in other countries. But while we see the attempt failing elsewhere, — so that we know the power of the Church is going to the wall, — yet in Ireland it is infinitely stronger now than it was fifty, or even twenty years ago.’

‘Because we have been removing restraints on Papal aggression, while other nations have been imposing restraints. There are those at Rome who believe all England to be Romish at heart, because here in England a Roman Catholic can say what he will, and print what he will.’

‘And yet,’ said Phineas, ‘all England does not return one Catholic to the House, while we have Jews in plenty. You have a Jew among your English judges, but at present not a single Roman Catholic. What do you suppose are the comparative numbers of the population here in England?’

‘And you are going to cure all this; — while Tyrone thinks it ought to be left as it is? I rather agree with Tyrone.’

‘No;’ said Phineas, wearily; ‘I doubt whether I shall ever cure anything, or even make any real attempt. My patriotism just goes far enough to make me unhappy, and Lord Tyrone thinks that while Dublin ladies dance at the Castle, and the list of agrarian murders is kept low, the country is admirably managed. I don’t quite agree with him — that’s all.’

Then there arose a legal difficulty, which caused much trouble to the Coalition Ministry. There fell vacant a certain seat on the bench of judges — a seat of considerable dignity and importance, but not quite of the highest rank. Sir Gregory Grogram, who was a rich, energetic man, determined to have a peerage, and convinced that, should the Coalition fall to pieces, the Liberal element would be in the ascendant — so that the woolsack would then be opened to him — declined to occupy the place. Sir Timothy Beeswax, the Solicitor-General, saw that it was exactly suited for him, and had no hesitation in expressing an opinion to that effect. But the place was not given to Sir Timothy. It was explained to Sir Timothy that the old rule — or rather custom, — of offering certain high positions to the law officers of the Crown, had been abrogated. Some Prime Minister, or, more probably, some collection of Cabinet Ministers, had asserted the custom to be a bad one — and as far as right went, Sir Timothy was declared not have a leg to stand upon. He was informed that his services in the House were too valuable to be lost. Some people said that his temper was against him. Others were of the opinion that he had risen from the ranks too quickly, and that Lord Ramsden who had come from the same party, thought that Sir Timothy had not yet won his spurs. The Solicitor-General resigned in a huff, and then withdrew his resignation. Sir Gregory thought the withdrawal should not be accepted, having found Sir Timothy to be an unsympathetic colleague. Our Duke consulted the old Duke, among whose theories of official life forbearance to all colleagues and subordinates was conspicuous. The withdrawal was therefore allowed — but the Coalition could not after that be said to be strong in regard to its Law Officers.

But the first concerted attack against the Ministry was made in reference to the budget. Mr Monk, who had consented to undertake the duties of Chancellor of the Exchequer under the urgent entreaties of the two dukes, was of course late with the budget. It was April before the Coalition had been formed. The budget when produced had been very popular. Budgets, like babies, are always little loves when first born. But as their infancy passes away, they also become subject to many stripes. The details are less pleasing than was the whole in the hands of the nurse. There was a certain ‘interest’, very influential both by general wealth and by the presence of many members in the House, which thought that Mr Monk had disregarded its just claims. Mr Monk had refused to relieve the Brewers from their licences. Now the Brewers had for some years been agitating about their licences, — and it is acknowledged in politics that any measure is to be carried out, or left out in the cold uncarried and neglected, according to the number of deputations which may be got to press a Minister on the subject. Now the Brewers had had deputation after deputation to many Chancellors of the Exchequer; and these deputations had been most respectable — we may almost say imperative. It was quite usual for a deputation to have four or five County members among the body, all Brewers; and the average wealth of a deputation of Brewers would buy up half London. All the Brewers in the House had been among the supporters of the Coalition, the number of Liberal and Conservative Brewers having been about equal. But now there was a fear that the ‘interest’ might put itself into opposition. Mr Monk had been firm. More than one of the Ministry had wished to yield; — but he had discussed the matter with the Chief; and they were both very firm. The Duke had never doubted. Mr Monk had never doubted.

From day to day certain organs of the Press expressed an opinion, gradually increasing in strength, that however strong might be the Coalition as a body, it was weak as to finance. This was hard because not very many years ago, the Duke himself had been known as a particularly strong Minister of Finance. An amendment was moved in Committee as to the Brewer’s Licences, and there was almost a general opinion that the Coalition would be broken up. Mr Monk would certainly not remain in office if the Brewers were to be relieved from their licences.

Then it was that Phineas Finn was recalled from Ireland in red hot haste. The measure was debated for a couple of nights, and Mr Monk carried his point. The Brewers’ Licences were allowed to remain, as one great gentleman from Burton declared, a ‘disgrace to the fiscal sagacity of the country.’ The Coalition was so far victorious — but there was a general feeling that its strength had been impaired.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43