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Why the act passed is similarly unclear. Any conventional Victorian political wisdom would have predicted that the Whigs or Liberals, as many Whigs were being called with increasing consistency, would have ushered in electoral reform, thereby confirming the widespread belief among workers that the Tories or Conservatives were indifferent to the interests and needs of the so-called people. Such a logical outcome was not to be. In 1867 the Conservatives, led by Lord Derby as prime minister in the House of Lords and by Benjamin Disraeli as chancellor of the exchequer in Commons, sponsored a reform bill a year after the Liberals, led by Earl Russell as prime minister in Lords and W. E. Gladstone as chancellor in Commons, had failed to pass their own version of such a measure. Like the earlier repeal of the Corn Laws (1846), the Second Reform Act proved that conservative politicians can sometimes pull off a reform beyond the power of their more progressive opponents. Most conservative thinkers, however, deplored that outcome. Even a moderately liberal political analyst like Walter Bagehot, looking back on the recent passage of the act, conjured up a vision of a political defeat that would lead inevitably to further defeats: “The Conservative party relinquished the citadel without a fight. . . . After this triumph, innovators will believe that they can have what they wish, and they will attack with the vigour of men who have just won and who mean to win again; while the Conservatives will defend like men who have just lost, and lost not after an heroic struggle, but meanly and by surrender” (Works 6: 390-91). Yet the metaphor of the state as a fallen citadel – a metaphor that appeared in many Victorian accounts of the Second Reform Act – is no more an adequate account of what caused that fall than a comparison of pre- and post-reform statistics is of its effects.
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The quality of political debate in Victorian Britain, in newspapers and in both houses of parliament, was also very high. The struggle for political supremacy between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli in the late 1860s and 1870s represents perhaps the most sophisticated political duel in the nation's history.