The action of the Lords in rejecting the Budget of 1909 had an important personal result. It placed Mr. Asquith in a role which no one was ever better qualified to fill—that of a Liberal statesman defending principles of democratic control menaced after a long period of security. The Prime Minister, not the Chancellor of the Exchequer, now became the protagonist; and this was to Redmond’s liking, for he felt that Mr. Asquith was more concerned with the problems which had occupied Gladstone’s closing years and Mr. Lloyd George with those of a later day.
Yet in the first grave encounter after the rejection of the Budget, Redmond and the leader of the Liberal party came to sharp differences. The general election had amply justified the advice which was urged by him on Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman when the House of Lords rejected the Education Bill in 1906—namely, that the Liberal party should take up at once the inevitable fight before their enormous strength had been frittered away in a series of disappointments. The majority of 1906 was too swollen to be healthy: owing to the ruling out of Home Rule, it included a number of men only partial adherents of the full Liberal programme; and a diminution of its proportions owing to the traditional swing of the pendulum was certain. But in January 1910 the losses were more than even sanguine Tory prophets predicted. Tories came back equal in strength to the Liberals: Labour was only forty, so that the Irish party held the balance in the House.
The election had been fought expressly on the issue of Government’s claim to enable a Liberal Government to deal with certain problems, among which the Irish question occupied the foremost place. It was easy now for the Tories to argue that the Government appealing to the country on that issue had lost two hundred seats. They said: “You have authority to pass your Budget—but for these vast unconstitutional changes you have no mandate.” The temper of their party, which had more than doubled its numbers, was very high: in the Liberal ranks depression reigned and counsels were divided.
At the beginning of the election Mr. Asquith had made a great speech in the Albert Hall in which he outlined the Liberal policy. In it he declared that the pledge against introducing a Home Rule Bill was withdrawn, and that the establishment of self-government for Ireland, subject to the supremacy of the Imperial Parliament, was among the Government’s main purposes. But the House of Lords was in the way.
“We shall not assume office and we shall not hold office unless we can secure the safeguards which experience shows us to be necessary for the legislative utility and honour of the party of progress.”
This was universally taken to mean that he would obtain a guarantee that the King would, if necessary, consent to the creation of sufficient new peers to override the hostile majority. But as the election progressed, uncertainties developed and an alternative policy of attempting to reform the Upper House was advocated in certain quarters. The question arose also as to whether the first business of the new House should be to pass the Budget which the Lords had thrown out or to proceed with the attack on the power of veto.