Christmas, meeting again on 27 Dec. On the 29th, an agreeable incident varied the course of polemical discussion. It was Gladstone's eighty-fourth birthday, and Mr. Balfour, on behalf of the conservative party, offered him congratulations, which he cordially acknowledged. Early in January Gladstone went for a short holiday to Biarritz, a favourite resort of his old age; and while he was there on 21 Jan. the 'Pall Mall Gazette' announced, apparently on authority, that the prime minister had determined to resign. There followed a carefully qualified contradiction, but not from Gladstone himself. In reply to inquiries, Sir Algernon West, an old friend and former secretary who was staying with him at Biarritz, sent a long telegram, in which he denied that the prime minister had formed any such intention. He remarked that Gladstone's eyesight was giving him trouble, which added considerably to the burdens of office. He was, in fact, suffering from cataract, for which he afterwards underwent a successful operation. Before his return to London in February a conflict between the two houses over Mr. Asquith's employers' liability bill produced a serious crisis. The House of Lords introduced a clause for conditional contracting out, to which they resolutely adhered. The consequence of the deadlock was the loss of the bill. Gladstone intended to move on 20 Feb. that the commons disagree with the lords' amendment, and to take a division. But the speaker ruled that, as the lords had adhered without modification to an amendment rejected by the commons, either the amendment must be accepted or the bill must be dropped. Gladstone could only move the withdrawal of the bill, and this impotent conclusion deprived his speech of much of its force, as it deprived the division of all meaning.
On 1 March, however, he returned to the subject, in connection with the parish councils bill, and took the opportunity of reviewing the whole history of the conflict between lords and commons. The lords had in committee so entirely altered this bill, which established district as well as parish councils, that it was hardly recognisable by its authors. The House of Commons refused to accept any important amendment made by the lords. Lord Salisbury was for fighting the matter out, even at the risk of losing the bill; but as the Duke of Devonshire and the liberal unionists declined to follow him he gave way. Most of the lords' amendments were abandoned, and they adhered only to two. One of these altered the size of the parish entitled to a council from two hundred to three hundred. The other left it with the charity commissioners to decide whether in each case a parish council should have control of charities. Rather than drop the bill, Gladstone yielded on these two points. But he added that, in his opinion, the relations between the two houses had become intolerably strained, and that the controversy must now go forward to its close. 'For ourselves,' he said, speaking for the cabinet, and amid the enthusiastic applause of his followers, 'we take frankly, fully, and finally, the side of the House of Commons.' This was his last speech, although his hearers were ignorant of the fact, and indeed his last appearance, in an assembly where he had sat with scarcely a break for more than sixty years. It is reasonable to infer that Gladstone would have appealed to the country against the lords at that time if he had been able to conduct a political campaign, and if he had been supported by his colleagues; but his physical powers were exhausted. The marvellous energy which he had displayed in the summer, when the home rule bill was before the house, deserted him when it had been disposed of, and the avenues of his senses, as he pathetically said, were closing.
On 3 March parliament was prorogued after an unexampled session of thirteen months, to meet again for a new one on the 12th. But it met with another prime minister. On the day of the prorogation Gladstone resigned, and the queen made no effort to retain his services. She at once sent for Lord Rosebery. Gladstone was not consulted upon the choice of his successor. The queen, in strict accordance with the constitutional principle laid down in 1846 by Sir Robert Peel, acted wholly upon her own initiative.
It is characteristic of Gladstone's mental energy and versatility that on the very day of his retirement he completed his translation of Horace's 'Odes.' Among the many attempts to perform an apparently impossible task, Gladstone's holds a high place. It is scholarly, lucid, and dignified. If it wants the lightness and ease which are part of Horace's inimitable charm, it shows a perfect appreciation of an author whose ideas, tastes, and thoughts were removed by an infinite distance from those of the translator.
Gladstone's involuntary retirement was received by all parties with respectful regret. Lord Salisbury said that the country had lost the most brilliant intellect ever devoted to the service of the state since parliamentary government began. Though Gladstone remained a member of parliament till the dis-