The debate on the second reading of the home rule bill began on 10 May, and was prolonged with intervals till 7 June. Gladstone, in moving that the bill be read a second time, intimated that he was not unwilling to reconsider the question of retaining the Irish members at Westminster, though he gave no hint of the manner in which this could bedone. In a spirited peroration he declared that the path of boldness was the path of safety, and he called upon his opponents to say what they considered was the alternative to home rule. Lord Hartington moved the rejection of the bill in a powerful speech. It was assailed from both sides of the house, and, apart from Gladstone's own speeches, it was feebly defended, with the exception of a vigorous apology, in the classical sense of the term, from Mr. Morley. On 7 June Gladstone rose to reply. His speech was admitted both by friends and foes to be, from a rhetorical point of view, one of the finest he delivered. He began with an appeal to the history of Canada, which had been brought from active rebellion to enthusiastic loyalty by the concession of home rule. He predicted that, if this controversy were prolonged, the hideous features of the transactions by which the union was accomplished would inevitably be brought to light. He called upon the house to listen to the voice of Ireland, now for the first time clearly heard. He implored them not to strengthen the party of violence by rejecting her constitutional demands. When he sat down, the division was called, and the bill was rejected by a majority of thirty—343 against 313. Ninety-three liberals voted against the bill.
On 8 June the cabinet decided to dissolve parliament. The queen objected to a second dissolution within seven months. But Gladstone persisted, holding that any other course would be 'showing the white feather.' The result was disastrous to home rule. There were returned at the general election 316 conservatives, seventy-eight liberal unionists—as those liberals who left Gladstone called themselves—191 liberals who adhered to him, and eighty-five Parnellites as before. This gave the conservatives and liberal unionists combined a working majority of 113. On 20 July Gladstone's cabinet resigned. The queen sent for Lord Salisbury, who, on the refusal of the liberal unionists to join him in office, formed a purely conservative ministry. All idea of retirement seemed to have vanished from Gladstone's mind. He had been returned without opposition for Midlothian, and he at once resumed the lead of the liberal party.
In August 1886 Gladstone went for a short holiday to Bavaria, and visited at Munich his venerable friend, Dr. Dollinger, the excommunicated leader of the old catholics. On the eve of his departure appeared an interesting pamphlet, in which he explained, among other things, how he came to take up home rule. The first part of it, called the 'History of an Idea,' was autobiographical. He had never, he wrote, publicly condemned home rule in principle, nor pronounced it to be at variance with the constitution. In the second part of his pamphlet, called 'Lessons of the Elections,' Gladstone analysed the position of the majority. He pointed out that, while the proportion of liberal unionists to liberals was among the peers five-sixths, it was among the working classes no more than one-twentieth. He showed that Ireland, Scotland, and Wales were all in favour of home rule, England alone being against it. Exaggerated apprehensions of the consequences to which the land purchase bill would lead were, he believed, the real cause of his defeat, and that bill was altogether dead. Finally, he contended that home rule was, in its essence, a conservative policy.
The year 1887 opened with an attempt to reconcile the conflicting elements of the liberal party, which came to be known as the round table conference. Gladstone, who had been favourably impressed by a recent speech of Mr. Chamberlain, wrote on 2 Jan. a public letter to Sir William Harcourt, in which he suggested that representatives of the home-rulers and liberal unionists might meet and endeavour to remove the causes of difference between them. A meeting followed, but nothing came of the consultation.
During the parliament of 1886-92, Gladstone, with apparently unabated energy, not merely pressed his Irish policy on the attention of the country by numberless speeches in and out of parliament, but in alliance with the Irish members of parliament he lost no opportunity of criticising with passionate ardour successive incidents in the efforts of the conservative government to secure law and order in Ireland by a rigorous administration of a new coercion law. When the Parnell commission relieved the Irish leader of the suspicion of writing letters, which the 'Times' had printed as his, condoning the Phoenix Park murders [see Parnell, Charles Stewart; Pigott, Richard], Parnell was for a time a hero of the liberal party. On 22 May, at a meeting of the