Rosebery: Office and Eclipse

On March 8th, 1894, Lord Rosebery took office as Prime Minister. John Raymond describes his fifteen difficult months in power.

When Mr. Gladstone formed his second Government in April 1880, everyone expected that Rosebery, who had seconded him so ably in the Midlothian campaign, would inevitably receive high office—a Viceroyalty, an embassy, a seat in the Cabinet even. But this was not Mr. Gladstone’s way. He adhered to “Peel’s rule against admitting anybody straight into the Cabinet without having held previous office”—a rule he had been forced to break only in the case of John Bright (1868) and Chamberlain (1880).

Rosebery was accordingly offered the Under-Secretaryship of State for India—an offer he declined, declaring, with his usual parade of scruple, that “if I take this appointment, I lose the certainty that what I have done in the matter of the elections, however slight, has been disinterested.” “Lord Rosebery would accept nothing,” noted Queen Victoria, “as he said it would look as though Mr. Gladstone had paid him for what he had done.”

The offer was repeated three months later, but by this time Rosebery’s health had given way; he had narrowly avoided a breakdown and was having recourse to “the gradually ascending levels from Homburg to Gastein, and Gastein to St. Moritz.” Meanwhile, Harcourt, the new Home Secretary, was struggling with an increasing flow of Scottish business, and he and others were clamouring for the setting-up of a separate Scottish Department.

In such discussions Rosebery’s name inevitably came up. To Harcourt’s suggestion that a full-blown Ministry should be created to handle Scottish affairs, Gladstone, who had already embarked on his long and heroic effort to win the Dark Rosaleen, only replied that his whole mind was given up to Ireland. Passed over for the Privy Seal, Rosebery’s prospects once again unaccountably hung fire. “As the months flew on,” writes Crewe, “the absence from the Government of such a conspicuous figure... became more and more noticeable.”

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