So how did Lord Salisbury this remarkable reactionary, aristocratic intellectual achieve so much for his party making it competitive and even dominant in British politics?
Partly it was through the shrewdness of the issues on which he opposed. He found issues where the tide of reform and opposition to "privilege" was not supported by the public. Home Rule was the ultimate example of this. As already mentioned it was the support of Catholic/ Irish voters on mainland Britain which had prevented the liberals gaining a majority of the seats in the 1885 election and thrown the ability to break a government to the Home Rulers. It must have seemed very tempting to try and do a major deal with them and after all Salisbury had already done something -to gain the votes of their British resident supporters he had committed to reducing Gladstone administrations restrictions on civil liberties in Ireland. But Salisbury very shrewdly did not. This did not just postpone Home Rule by over 3 decades but gave huge benefits to the conservative party. It shattered the liberals-and not just that but precipitated huge defections. The Whigs who'd been dithering on the edge of the liberal party for decades (despite generally being at least a 1/3 of Gladstone’s average Cabinet) broke away. So more did group of former radicals based around Joe Chamberlain and John Bright-and over the next few decades these "liberal unionists" grew integrated into the same parties. The combination of this split and general defections over the issue were enough to make the conservatives and their increasingly cooperative allies win all but on of the subsequent elections under his leadership. Finally it proved a very powerful issue for the next few decades-probably the most dangerous grounds of all issues (with the closely related Boer War-also a Salisbury project) for the liberals to fight on.
But Home Rule was far from the only issue Salisbury leapt on. Perhaps even more than Disraeli he started the conservatives om the role as the party that would stop meddling "interfering" legislation. He solidly opposed drink legislation and attempts to interfere with business or death duties. this helped build up a powerful social base among the middle classes-often traditional liberals increasingly frightened of the implications of the liberal party's dominant factions. Even immigration control began as a Tory issue under Salisbury. These issues varied in the groups they appealed to. So immigration control was at it's most popular in London East End Slums and even before Chamberlain defected and "swung" Birmingham Conservatives were already strongly competitive in the slums-fighting rate increases and regulatory "bossiness" the bad hardest on the poorest. However overall the social appeal was strongest to the middle classes. Strong middle class constituencies like Chelsea (previous a stronghold of radical liberals) swung to the Conservatives under Salisbury-and have often remained Conservative to this day
Salisbury understood that it was possible for Conservatives to win by taking clear stands sharply separated from their opponents- something in which he has been followed by every other successful Conservative leader whether Baldwin , Churchill or Thatcher. This consisted not just of the nationalist and sectarian vote over Home Rule but also of building up a powerful class constituency
It did not however consist of going out on a limb on unpopuolar causes. He knew how to pick fights as well as how to win them The classic case of this was Franchise extension. Salisbury as already mentioned was very hostile to such extension in principle. But in the 1880's he did not use the Conservative majority in the Lords to block it- he avoided a "peoples budget" style confrontation decades early. Instead he used the lords majority to win concessions for redistributing- in theory a "liberal progressive" reform-but in practice a big help to the conservatives separating middle class suburbs from liberal towns. The ultimate example of his willingness to be political on the franchise twas his willingness to consider female enfranchisement on the same terms as men-realizing that the affluent minority of property holding or renting women would be a lot more conservative than the national average.
He was very careful to avoid a fight on a cleavage where the Conservatives were weaker than the liberals- for all his strong principles.. Free trade was a classic example. Salisbury had fiercely opposed repeal of the Corn Laws (which taxed corn imports) and theoretically kept up corn prices for farmers.The "Great Depression" and the linked fall in agricultural prices seemed to offer a massive temptation to embrace protectionism to protect the "rural interest". Salisbury flirted enough with this to make the Conservatives seem more sympathetic to farmers-but very wisely did not endorse it. When his successors did it shattered the Conservative Party electorally. He was helped in this by the fact his vision of government was sufficiently minimal that he was far from a strong protectionist himself
Salisbury's willingess to enter into a certian degree of social reform was also an example of his flexibility in the light of events and willingess to make concessions to electoral reality. In his housing reform Salisbury expanded the very small degree of welfare state-though it still was extensive compared to Disraeli's even more minimal reforms. The reforms followed Disraei's motif in being both modest and being run at a local level-minimising them being a threat to the power of local elites or the cohesion of local communities in a rather Burkean way.
However the great social reform of Salisbury's period was Land Reform in Ireland- which involved huge compulsory purchase of estates and their long term allocation to farmers. This could perhaps be seen as both the greatest policy failure and greatest policy success of Salisbury’s government. On the one hand it failed in it's purpose to end support for Irish Nationalism. Home Rule parties continued to get the same share of the vote (any minor decline being due to division over Charles Parnell being cited in a divorce) and indeed after World War 1 supporters of full independence would gain a majority of seats and make 3/4 of Ireland an independent state. In this it fits a general patter with land reform which perhaps because it promotes instability , perhaps because it is a later attempt to prevent it , seems to disproportionally go before the collapse of a regime.
On the other hand it was designed to break support for the radical and terroristic activities of the land league and opposition to enforcement of land ownership rights -and in that it was triumphantly successful -arguably helping maintain law and order in Ireland for decades. It also brought about a long term ideological shift in Irish politics. Ireland had previously been a radical area hostile to landowners and property. But post independence Ireland was very different-in some ways it's government can be seen as representing a form of Catholic Toryism. It was Protectionist, nationalistic, almost obsessively protective of property, more restrictive of union power than the UK and minimal in its welfare state . This of course goes some way to explaining paradoxically why liberals were so deferential to the Irish party in the 1910 parliament (when the Irish held the balance of power) -because the Irish naturally supported them little on non constitutional issues they needed to be satisfied on constitutional ones. This in turn further inspired Tory fury-feeling as they did they commended a majority on issues but were being defeated by an “illegitimate” log ruling coalition enthusiastic on particular issues- this led to a Tory love affair with referendum that would stay strong for decades.
But perhaps Salisbury's greatest achievement was his ability to expand his coalition. He carefully manoeuvred to bring in for the long term those elements of the liberals alienated by Home Rule In many ways the "Whigs" had long been natural allies their support of a broader constitutional settlement that brought in the middle classes and dissenters was now much less relevant than their opposition to attacks on establishment ,the Union and property. Even so Salisbury sought to keep them on board by essentially offering Harrington the role of Prime Minister-twice! But Joe Chamberlain had been regarded as on the radical wing of the liberal party and it seemed a temporary split. Indeed chamberlain himself probably wanted to wait till Gladstone retired nd then take over the liberals- Unfortunately for him Gladstone though already nearly 80 carried on the leadership for another eight years by which time it was too late for Chamberlain. Salisbury carefully refrained from issues such as Anglican education that would have alienated Chamberlain. Indeed Land Reform was an issue that appealed a great deal to Chamberlain-and it was a conservative government that was to introduce it!
There was also one Whig who it is very impressive Salisbury managed to accommodate-Lord Derby. The son of the Prime Minister he had left the Conservatives in the late 1870's for the liberals/Whigs over Disraeli's foreign policy. He had married Salisbury's stepmother and was clearly hated by Salisbury- Andrew Roberts suggests that Salisbury suspected he had committed adultery with his wife when she was still married to Salisbury's father. But nonetheless Salisbury cooperated well if not happily with Derby as leader of the Liberal Unionists in the Lords.
The reader may have noticed one absence-organisation. Partly that is because Lord Salisbury had little positive to do with the huge increases of organisation in the Conservatives in this period. It is also because I believe it’s impact has been exaggerated-the development of a structured organisation did not correlate closely with conservative victories.
Above is another picture of Salisbury-the man who made the conservatives-essentially for the first time since the mass franchise the majority party.