The Derby Dilly was a name given to a group of dissident Whigs and others in the United Kingdom led by the former Cabinet minister Edward, Lord Stanley, who later became 14th Earl of Derby. Stanley had resigned from the cabinet of Lord Grey over the reorganisation of the Church of Ireland in 1834.
The uneasy coalition of Whigs, Canningites, Radicals, Irish Repealers and Tory mavericks that had been in office since 1830 and had passed the Reform Act 1832 had been showing signs of growing fracture. Their electoral victory of 1832 against a demoralised Tory party quickly led to a growing struggle between politicians like Lord John Russell who wanted to extend the cause of reforms to other areas of governance and Edward Smith-Stanley and others who feared the growth of radicalism - and the influence of the Irish repealers in particular. In May 1834, this pressure became too great and Stanley with the ex-Canningite The Earl of Ripon, Conservative Whig Sir James Graham and The Duke of Richmond (who had previously been one of the Ultra-Tories) resigned from the cabinet on the issue of proposed changes to the structure and finances of the Anglican Church of Ireland .
Preferring to call themselves 'Moderate Whigs' or just 'Moderates', Stanley and his immediate cohorts including Graham and Francis Burdett at first remained on the Government benches in the House of Commons. They were at first known unofficially as the 'Stanleyites' as they seemed more of an old style parliamentary faction familiar in British politics from the 18th and early 19th centuries. However the group soon received a new name from their political opponents to which they are now best remembered - 'The Derby Dilly'.
This was an allusion to a type of stagecoach called the 'Derby Dilly' (short for 'Diligence') and referred to Stanley's hereditary family title 'Earl of Derby'. Remembering Stanley's remark that when he had left the cabinet that this had led to an 'upsetting of the ministerial coach', the Irish nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell labelled them the 'Derby Dilly' with a clever reference to the lines of a poem by George Canning and others entitled 'The Loves of the Triangles'. This had been a work of parody actually attacking the works of Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) and had the lines "Still down thy steep, romantic Ashbourne, glides The Derby dilly carrying six insides."
The idea of an erratic coach with Stanley driving the horses was quickly picked up by others and the name stuck to the group. He already had a reputation as the 'Prince Rupert of Debate' - a man who could lead his followers into an attack but was unable to rally them afterwards. As a result it was difficult to estimate the number of MPs who were actually part of the 'Dilly'. It is possible they numbered up to 70 at this time but they lacked a core set of political beliefs or attitudes. Many of them remained uncertain whether to go back to the Whigs, join the Tory Party or attempt to create a third political force. Some political observers wondered if the 'Dilly' - or at least those identified solidly with Stanley - really only numbered half a dozen MPs at most.
Despite his growing estrangement from the Whigs, Stanley remained on good terms with his former party leader Earl Grey. In November 1834 following the resignation of The Viscount Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel invited Stanley (now Lord Stanley) and others in the 'Dilly' to join his minority Tory government. Stanley declined but made it obvious that he was finding himself in general agreement with Peel's attempt to form an administration.
In December 1834, Stanley decided he needed to at least define a set of ideas to mark out his group from the other parties and factions in the House of Commons. In a speech at Glasgow University that was subsequently dubbed 'The Knowsley Creed' after the Stanley family's ancestral home Knowsley Hall in Liverpool, Stanley gave the student audience an outline of his political beliefs .
Besides affirming his staunch support of the Established Church and opposition to 'destructive reform', Stanley still signalled his political belief that it was not possible to reverse reform or undertake a reactionary domestic agenda.
“The machine must move forward for good or evil – for it cannot be stopped; like the fire it may purify, if properly kindled by a skilful hand, but if it should be impetuously and recklessly accelerated, destruction and overwhelming wreck must be the inevitable consequences".
However Stanley had been preempted by Peel. Three days earlier on 8 December 1834 Peel had issued an election address to his constituents (which was later dubbed the Tamworth Manifesto) which covered much of the same political and religious ground as Stanley's speech. Now usually known as a founding political ideology for what was to become the Conservative Party - it too said that Peel's party would support reform to correct 'abuses' where necessary and marked a contrast to the old Toryism that had gone before that appeared to be opposed to all change. It also meant that in practice the 'Derby Dilly' with their 'Knowsley Creed' and the Conservatives 'Tamworth Manifesto' were two sides of the same coin.
Though they made electoral gains in the 1835 General Election, Peel's government remained a minority in the House of Commons. For the Derby Dilly - the election saw them briefly attempt to forward their own candidates for election but apparently there were no recruits to their diminishing band. However surprisingly Stanley thought he still had at least 86 supporters in January 1835 and described his band to a supporter as a 'corps de reserve' which the King William IV could call upon 'in case of accidents' (i.e. to form a government if the monarch had enough of the either the Tory-Conservatives and Whig-Radical blocs). Though Stanley may have had in mind King George III's example of appointing William Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister in 1783, in the end it was his 'reserve' that crumbled away, and those that were left by March 1835 (between 30-40) were still unable to agree to even vote the same way on a given debate.
By this time Lord Stanley was clearly leaning towards the Conservative Party. Any remote possibility of returning to the Whigs was scuttled by the Lichfield House Compact by which the Irish Repealers, Whigs and Radicals agreed to vote out Peel's government. This wasn't long in coming, and left the 'Derby Dilly' nowhere else to go but to support Peel. When Peel resigned as Prime Minister in April 1835, the King invited not Stanley, but Melbourne and the Whigs, to form a new government, and Stanley received no invitation to rejoin the Whig fold.
For a brief period - and a measure of the looseness of political labels at this time - there was talk of a 'Liberal and Conservative party' combining Stanley, Graham, Peel and even Lord Grey but it came to nothing. Instead there was a steady drift of MPs from the old pro Reform coalition to the Conservatives - some who had originally joined Stanley's group and others who went over independently. One estimate puts that number at least 50 MPs switching political allegiance between 1835-1841.
For Stanley (now Lord Stanley ) and the remaining 'Derby Dilly' supporters (about 20 MPs in by 1837) there was now a staged progression across to the Conservatives. This is best illustrated by Stanley's own movement across the political spectrum. In 1836 he resigned from the Whig supporting 'Brooks's Club' - officially because his old political enemy Daniel O'Connell had become a member - and by the next elections of 1837 the remaining Stanleyites were reliant on Conservative support to get back to parliament. In November 1837 Stanley and Graham joined other Conservative M.P.s at a meeting prior to the opening of the new Parliament and in December they had officially joined them and sat with Peel on the Opposition Front Bench. Lord Stanley finally sealed his new Conservative identity by becoming a member of the Tory 'Holy of Holies' - the Conservative supporting Carlton Club.
The remaining 'Derby Dilly' MPs were soon absorbed into the main Conservative Party. They included Lord George Bentinck who was later better known for his alliance with Benjamin Disraeli in the 1840s against Sir Robert Peel on the issue of repealing the Corn Laws. Considering their Whig origins, it is ironic that Stanley, Bentinck and the former Radical Disraeli would go on to break with Peel and take two thirds of his former party with them to recreate a new Conservative Party.