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Duke Of Portland

Prime Minister 1783, and 1807 - 1809

William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck was born 14th April 1738, son of the 2nd Duke of Portland. Educated at Christ Church, Oxford, Portland then pursued a political career in which he dedicated himself to the Whig Party. He stated his position as a party man quite clearly, declaring "I consider myself a servant of the party" (quoted by E. Anthony Smith in The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P201). He was an amiable politician who did not tend to offend people, who put his team before himself, and was an ideal candidate to unite his party. After a position as lord lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Portland became leader of the Whig party from 1782. He was called as prime minister in 1783, and then again between 1807 and 1809. Portland's predecessor, Lord Shelburne had been the last prime minister to try and govern without the aid of a political party. Even though both Shelburne and Portland are seldom remembered today, they represent an important shift from a king's government, to government held together by party organisation.

Fittingly the year of Portland's first ministry, 1783, marked an important step in the continuing decline of royal power. Previously ministers supported by the monarch could rely on an automatic level of authority. Now the House of Commons was determined to force their own nominations on the king. George III muttered threats of abdication as he was forced to nominate Portland as his first minister on 31st March 1783. But Parliament in taking power also had to face the reality of holding itself together on its own, with less help from the ancient symbolic stability of monarchy. Portland's first administration didn't last a year, collapsing over allegations of corruption in changes to the government of India. William Pitt the Younger then served his energetic term as prime minister for a new age of government. But when Pitt died in January 1806, Portland remained as a symbolic figure around whom others could gather. Ironically Portland was now seen as a great supporter of the king. In many ways the king and Portland both had similar jobs to do. Portland, now in poor health, following brutal nineteenth century surgery for a bladder stone, took over as prime minister for a second term, 1807 - 1809. He reprised his role as a figurehead, while Canning, Castlereagh and Spencer Perceval ran the government. But holding these men together in one government was not an easy task, and Portland's health could not hold out. In August 1809 the prime minister collapsed, resigning the following month, and dying only a few weeks later on 29th October. Portland had been the first party prime minister, and in being so he had created a symbolic role designed more for unity than action.