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date: 30 November 2020

Mince-pie administrationfree

(act. 1783–1784)
  • Matthew Kilburn

Mince-pie administration (act. 1783–1784), was the derisive nickname given to the political ministry formed on 18 December 1783, headed by William Pitt. The term was apparently coined by the whig political hostess Frances, Lady Crewe, and expressed the belief widespread within the political élite that the ministry would not survive Christmas (Ehrman, 133).

The administration emerged from the antagonism between George III and the coalition ministry formed in April 1783. The ministry was chaired by the duke of Portland as prime minister but led in the House of Commons by the dominant member of the former Rockingham whig party, Charles James Fox, and the former prime minister Lord North. The king viewed the coalition between his former friend North and his arch-enemies the former Rockingham whigs as a betrayal; they had used their numerical preponderance in the Commons to force the resignation of his chosen minister, the earl of Shelburne, in the king's view an unconstitutional act. Just as unconstitutional, to the king's mind, was the insistence by Fox and his allies in the Commons that the house should dominate the executive. George III had asked Pitt to form a government but he had refused as he would have faced the same problems as Shelburne.

The opportunity to form a new government arose through the unpopularity of the Portland ministry's India Bill, which the king resented because it reduced the power of the crown. Many members of parliament also disliked the bill, in part because it threatened to place Indian patronage in the hands of one political faction and not in a crown independent from parties. Importantly, it also split Lord North's supporters, many of whom were part of the East India Company interest who had previously looked to North for defence against attacks by the Rockingham party. These included North's principal parliamentary manager, John Robinson, whose inclination in any case, as one of the so-called king's friends, was to protect the king's prerogative to choose his servants. Robinson colluded with the emerging shadow ministry by providing electoral information that showed that Shelburne's former colleagues could win a working majority in the Commons in a general election if they were backed, as the sitting ministry, by the machinery of the crown, and could enjoy crown influence in seats where government had an interest as an employer or landowner. Before an election, Robinson thought a new ministry could win a working majority in a few months by persuasion. On 11 December George Grenville, third Earl Temple, who with the former lord chancellor Edward Thurlow, first Baron Thurlow, had led opposition to the Portland ministry in the Lords, had an audience with George III in which Temple was authorized to 'say, that whoever voted for the India Bill was not only not his friend, but would be considered by him as an enemy' (Ehrman, 127); on 17 December the India Bill was defeated in the Lords, and the next day George III dismissed his government.

Pitt took office on 18 December without the full character of the new ministry having been decided. It was intended that Temple should lead the ministry in the Lords, and he was initially expected to hold the offices of foreign and home secretary, but on 22 December he resigned for reasons that have long been the subject of historical debate. It has been variously suggested that he accepted office only on the assumption that parliament would be dissolved immediately, or that he expected his leading role in the new administration to be recognized with a dukedom, which George III refused, or that he simply thought his role as the ‘king's messenger’ in the Lords had damaged his credibility as a minister.

Pitt offered cabinet posts to many of the senior figures who had been involved in administrations in the 1760s and 1770s, including the former prime minister the duke of Grafton, and Shelburne's foreign secretary Lord Grantham, but all refused to take part in such a precarious government. Over the Christmas period he made at least one overture to Fox, who used a Commons speech to profess himself insulted by the offer from someone of Pitt's youth (twenty-four to Fox's thirty-five in January) who did not command the confidence of the Commons. Apart from the lord chancellor, Thurlow, the effective posts in the administration went to middle-ranking figures: Francis Osborne, marquess of Carmarthen, became foreign secretary; Thomas Townshend, first Baron Sydney, became home secretary; Charles Manners, fourth duke of Rutland, lord privy seal; Richard Howe, fourth Viscount Howe, first lord of the Admiralty. The veterans included were the former Bedford whig leader Granville Leveson-Gower, second Earl Gower, as lord president of the council (who was apparently considered as first lord of the Treasury) and Charles Lennox, third duke of Richmond, who became master of the ordnance. Pitt had no cabinet colleague in the Commons: his strongest supporters in debate in the Commons were William Grenville, paymaster of the forces, and Henry Dundas, treasurer of the navy. Other members of the government were Lloyd Kenyon as attorney-general and Richard Pepper Arden as solicitor-general; Sir George Yonge as secretary at war; George Rose as patronage secretary to the Treasury, and Thomas Steele (1753–1823) as the remaining secretary to the Treasury. Of these Kenyon took the post out of loyalty to his friend Thurlow and with the hope of a move back onto the judicial career ladder, which was granted in March 1784 when he became master of the rolls; Arden then replaced him as attorney-general, and was succeeded as solicitor-general by a lawyer follower of Gower who had proved a useful speaker in the Commons on the government side, Archibald Macdonald. Yonge was a veteran opponent of North's American policy who had at various times been classified among both the Rockingham and Chathamite whigs, but was not greatly competent. Rose managed the Commons and surveyed electoral fortunes as Robinson refused office while remaining well disposed towards Pitt's ministry. Sydney, Richmond, Yonge, Dundas, and Kenyon had all held the same offices in the Shelburne ministry, of which Pitt's administration could be considered at its outset a reimagining.

When Lady Crewe dismissed the ministry as a ‘mince-pie administration’ she was probably referring not only to the ministry's being unlikely to survive the Christmas season, but also to its being eaten up by the displaced coalition's majority in the Commons and the oratorical strength of its speakers, who included Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke. The ministry lost two votes on the first day it met parliament after the Christmas recess, 12 January 1784, and could offer no opposition on five others. The defeats continued for several weeks, but the administration was bolstered by several developments. These included the arrival and publication of loyal addresses to the king in support of the ministry from corporations; while many, or most, had been solicited by Pitt's administration or came from known friends, this was by no means all. Their publication, revealing over 50,000 signatures in all, was valuable propaganda. The ministry had not sought to interfere with royal household appointments in the way that the Rockingham, Shelburne, and Portland administrations had, and George III used this freer hand to reward loyal or potentially sympathetic peers with office. He also assented to the creation of a small but strategic number of new peers, including the promotion of Edward Craggs-Eliot as first Baron Eliot and an additional barony, to be inherited by a younger son, for Hugh Percy, first duke of Northumberland. A movement among independent MPs in the Commons to avoid a conflict with the crown and to widen the administration's support was also responsible for the ministry's gathering confidence as it grew more probable that it would at least see out the parliamentary session. Pressure from the independents for a broad-based ministry was unrealistic. George III was opposed to a return to office by Fox, while Fox would not serve unless the ministry first resigned and a new one formed; Pitt would not serve with North, nor would he resign. Most independents chose to support Pitt and the king once it was apparent that no accommodation could be reached with Fox. By 8 March Fox's majority in the Commons was reduced to one vote. Parliament was dissolved on 25 March and the resulting election delivered Pitt's ministry a comfortable majority of about 120. There were famous victories against several of Fox's supporters in seats that they had been assumed to control, such as Thomas Coke in Norfolk and Lord John Cavendish in York.

Shortly before the dissolution the government had been joined by Charles Pratt, Baron Camden, a senior Chathamite who had earlier declined to serve. He became lord privy seal, as Rutland left for Dublin to become lord lieutenant of Ireland. Camden's arrival added another tie to earlier administrations and so was a further support to the credibility of the ministry. With a large majority, the era of the mince-pie administration was over. The expectations of most of the political class at the end of December 1783—that the Commons, led by Fox, would defeat George III and force out Pitt—proved to have underestimated the loyalty of the independent members to the crown, and also overestimated the support of voters in the open constituencies for the Commons over the crown. In the event most voters in contested constituencies chose to support George III and his ministry. In surviving to win a general election the mince-pie administration had not only proved its longevity, but established that there was broad support for the active use of the royal prerogative in government, and challenged prevailing whig assumptions about the parliamentary nature of the constitution.

Sources

  • J. Ehrman, The younger Pitt, 1: The years of acclaim (1969)
  • L. G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox (1992)
  • J. Black, George III (2006)
  • J. Brooke, King George III (1972)
  • J. Cannon, The Fox–North coalition: crisis of the constitution, 1782–4 (1969)
L. Namier & J. Brooke, eds., , 3 vols. (1964); repr. (1985)