The 1741 election practically annihilated what remained of Sir Robert Walpole’s majority in the Commons. On 2 February 1742 he resigned from the government, thereby ending his unbroken 20-year tenure as ‘prime minister’. The establishment of a stable new ministry in the midst of Britain’s involvement in a European war, proved a long and torturous process. The ‘old corps’ Whigs, who had served and supported Walpole, remained numerically superior in the ministry and in Parliament. But up to 1746 they were forced to endure a tough struggle for survival on account of the king’s favouritism towards Lord Carteret, the former patriot leader in the Lords.
At the general election in May 1741 there were contests in only 94 constituencies, the lowest number since 1713. A total of 417 Whigs and 136 Tories were returned (with five seats unfilled owing to double returns). Of the Whigs, the ministry calculated a maximum strength of 286, while the total number of opposition Whigs was 131. Together with the Tories, the combined opposition therefore numbered 267. This gave the government an overall possible majority of only 19 compared to 42 at the end of the last Parliament. By the time the Commons met on 1 December, death and other factors had further lowered the government’s majority, to just 16.
The ministry did badly in Cornwall and Scotland where ministerial influence had previously been strong. Furthermore, at the opening of the new Parliament it was clear that opposition Whigs and Tories, greatly encouraged by their increased numbers, were now jointly enthused with the imminent prospect of toppling Walpole from power. Early divisions in a very full House of Commons in December 1741 confirmed the ministry’s precarious situation. On 16 Dec. they lost the chairmanship of the committee of elections to an opposition Whig by 242 votes to 238. This ensured that priority would now be given to hearing election cases favoured by the opposition (rather than the ministry), and so enable them to reduce the ministerial majority still further. Further narrow defeats culminated on 28 January 1742 with a defeat on the Chippenham election. Walpole accepted that he had lost his ability to command the Commons and took the decision to resign. He made a final appearance in the Commons on 2 February.
The ministry was reconstructed in a way that preserved the dominance of the ‘old corps’ Whigs who had served under Walpole, but with an unwelcome infusion of some 32 ‘New Whigs’. These were the prince of Wales’s faction and the supporters of William Pulteney and Carteret. Pulteney himself refused office and took a peerage (as earl of Bath), but other leading Whig opponents accepted high office, notably Carteret who became secretary of state. It proved, however, a highly unsatisfactory arrangement as the ministry took on a divided appearance in Parliament.
The ‘New Whigs’, former opponents but now members of the ministry, found themselves mercilessly baited in the Commons for refusing to countenance the popular measures for which they had previously campaigned. These included bills aimed to ban ‘placemen’ a