Disraeli becomes Prime Minister
The 29th of February 1868 AD
Benjamin Disraeli’s story is a remarkable one of triumph against prejudice, and of the determination to succeed.
It was only in 1858 that a law was passed to allow Jews to serve in Parliament, and covert discrimination was even stronger than overt. Disraeli had been baptized into the Anglican Church, however, after his Italian Jewish immigrant father had fallen out with his synagogue, so officially he was of the Christian faith.
Disraeli’s early career was to say the least a chequered one. He was at first put in a solicitor’s office to learn the law, but was not suited to the life. He attempted to make a fortune on the stock exchange, and lost his money. He was a leading light in the launch of a newspaper that quickly sank without a trace. Writing a satirical novel after this experience was intended to make some money and get a little revenge on a former business partner blamed for his financial failure, and at first the scheme worked, but then turned bad and the fledgling writer suffered a nervous breakdown.
Writing was to prove a source of some fame for Benjamin Disraeli through and after his life, however. His most famous novel is Sybil, and in it can be discerned themes that would be a part of his political career, social justice and the need to re-unite the economically divided country.
When in 1839 Disraeli married the rich widow Mary Ann Lewis it was almost certainly for position and money, though they became a devoted couple. She was 12 years his senior, and had the entry to political circles previously beyond him because of her first husband’s contacts – he was the politician Wyndham Lewis.
Disraeli had stood for Parliament as a radical candidate twice before he joined the Conservatives, entering Parliament for the first time when he took Maidstone for that party. His first days in the Commons were not auspicious, his maiden speech received with ridicule. But his reaction to this was typical: “The time will come when you will hear me.”
In spite of his wife’s contacts, it was not until 1852 that Disraeli, widely regarded as highly capable and a devastating debater, was given a place in government – rising from the back benches to be at once Leader of the Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Peel overlooked him for years, and it was Lord Derby who brought him into the cabinet with his first government, though the two were not at ease with one another until the end of Derby’s career.
Disraeli was an astute man and capable of enormous charm, and he won the trust and friendship of Queen Victoria . He was also a shameless flatterer, whose wit and verve appealed to the monarch. In spite of misgivings elsewhere, when Derby resigned as Prime Minister in February 1868, Disraeli was invited by the Queen to form a government, becoming Prime Minister for the first time on February 29 1868.
The Conservatives were a minority government, and skilful manoeuvrings by Gladstone made life difficult for the new PM. In the election of December that same year the Liberals came to power. The rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli would be long and bitter, cementing the two party system in British politics.
Disraeli was to become PM again in 1874, this time for far longer than the first. His government’s legislation was strangely radical for a Tory administration, improving the lot of the working classes with working contract protections, the ending of the vile practice of using boys to climb chimneys to sweep them; the improvement of public health and new guidelines over the sale of drugs; and huge steps forward in living conditions with landlords forced to make significant improvements in property standards.
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