The process of consolidating the Whig regime continued into this Parliament. The elections held in March 1722 saw further Tory losses and more Whig gains, giving the Whigs an even greater overall majority than in 1715. However, ongoing rivalries among the senior Whig politicians ensured that the king’s ministry would not be a united body. Robert Walpole retained his position as first lord of the treasury, though largely in recognition of his value as a finance minister. After the death of the king’s favourite minister, Lord Sunderland, in April 1722, his future seemed uncertain in view of George I’s retention of those who had been Sunderland’s leading adherents in the ministry, the most prominent of whom was Lord Carteret.
At the general election 379 Whigs were returned as against 178 Tories. Thirty-five more contests were fought than in 1715, a likely indication of Tory desperation. There was a record number of petitions against the returns – 99, of which only 24 were deliberated on in the House of Commons. These proceedings awarded ten Tory seats to the Whigs, increasing their number still further to 389 seats. In one of the more protracted hearings the Government ousted the two Tories returned in the riotous contest for the populous Westminster constituency in London.
Just weeks after the election came news of a new Jacobite conspiracy. When the new Parliament assembled in October, Walpole persuaded the Commons of the severity of the intended plot, and its ringleaders and chief participants – who included Dr Francis Atterbury, the bishop of Rochester – were rounded up. Emergency measures were taken: habeas corpus was again suspended and a punitive tax imposed on Roman Catholics. Although historians are divided over the authenticity of the plot, there is no doubt that Walpole made good use of it to accentuate his reputation as the leading minister in charge of the king’s business in the Lower House.
Despite the large number of Whigs in the Commons, many stayed loyal to the surviving core of Sunderland’s ministers still in office, and were slow to forgive Walpole for his apostasy during 1717-20. There was lingering Whig scepticism, too, over his apparent ‘skreening’ of several ministerial culprits in the South Sea scandal, and in what some saw as his strategically overblown interpretation of the ‘Atterbury Plot’. The long session of 1722-3 therefore saw much Whig opposition to Walpole’s proposed emergency measures for dealing with the Plot and punishing its leaders. It was in the realm of finance, however, that he made an early impact and gained wider approval. In the first few sessions of the Parliament he maintained a low land tax, introduced a scheme for maximising customs revenue by reducing smuggling, and adopted a structured approach to reducing the national debt.
While Walpole developed a gradually strengthened position in the House of Commons, his and Townshend’s joint quest to gain supremacy at court – and thus in the ministry – proved an uphill struggle. But by 1725, with the assistance of the king’s mistress, the duchess of Kendal, most of the old Sunderlandite remnants of the ministry had been manoeuvred out of office and replaced by their own allies. Carteret had been replaced as secretary of state in 1724 by the duke of Newcastle. In 1725 Lord Macclesfield, the lord chancellor, who was impeached in Parliament for alleged financial mishandling of money in chancery, and the duke of Roxburgh, secretary of state for Scotland, both lost office. Roxburgh’s removal allowed the control of Scottish elections and its MPs to pass to the duke of Argyll and his brother Lord Islay, who were close collaborators of Townshend and Walpole.
The 1725 session saw Townshend and Walpole achieve a position of almost complete dominance within the ministry, with overall control of Court patronage in Parliament. But it also saw the first stirrings of fresh Whig opposition. William Pulteney, a former close colleague of Walpole’s, who like him, had been a rising Whig star and junior minister in Queen Anne’s reign, had been sidelined by Walpole in the recent ministerial reshuffles. Pulteney’s frustration and bitterness now burst into a professed determination to topple Walpole from office. During the sessions of 1726 and 1727 he regularly attacked Walpole’s record as a finance minister and denounced the ministry’s renewal of the alliance with France in the treaty of Hanover.
At this stage, however, Pulteney’s opposition attracted only a handful of supporters, and the Tories regarded him with distrust. The minority mustered poorly in divisions and was vastly outnumbered by the government. In 1727, as Britain’s relationship with Spain reached breaking point, and as Gibraltar lay under siege, the Pulteneyite challenge to the ministry seemed of minor importance.
Following the sudden death of George I en route to Hanover on 11 June 1727, Parliament was reconvened to grant a civil list to his successor, George II, and to complete other formalities to inaugurate the new reign. Expectations that Walpole would be succeeded as chief minister by the new king’s favourite, Sir Spencer Compton, quickly receded as Compton shrank from assuming the burdens of high ministerial office.
C.B. Realey, Early opposition to Sir Robert Walpole, 1720-1727 (Lawrence, Kansas, 1931)