Sir William Harcourt announces his resignation as leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Commons

William Harcourt’s two year leadership was not a happy one. Sometimes considered Gladstone’s heir apparent he was passed over in favour of Lord Rosebery when Gladstone retired as Prime Minister in 1894. With Rosebery leading the government in the Lords, Harcourt led in the Commons, often seeming to lead a separate government. Rosebery continued for a year as leader after the fall of his government but when he resigned in 1896 Harcourt remained as leader in the Commons. The situation was never formally endorsed but neither was it opposed. Although relations with the new leader in the Lords, Lord Kimberley, were cordial, there were continuing battles with the Liberal Imperialists and speculation as to whether Rosebery would return as leader. Harcourt’s response to the Jameson Raid in South Africa attracted criticism and, although he had some successes such as forcing Lord Salisbury’s government to withdraw its Education Bill in 1896, by 1898 he was ready to throw in the towel. In the Autumn he discussed the matter with John Morley and they agreed to draft a letter of resignation from Harcourt and a response from Morley. The letters were duly published in The Times on 14 December to the surprise of most of the party – although senior colleagues including Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith and Kimberley – were privately informed two days before. Harcourt continued as an MP, standing in on occasion for his successor, Campbell-Bannerman, until his death in 1904.