was elected a member of the first London school board in 1871, and a resolution framed by him was adopted as a compromise on the vexed question of religious teaching in schools.
On Mr. Disraeli forming his administration in 1874, Smith was offered and accepted the post of secretary to the treasury; and in 1877, on the death of George Ward Hunt [q. v.], he joined the cabinet as first lord of the admiralty. This office had generally been held by persons of high rank, and Disraeli incurred some sharp criticism from his own party by conferring it on a London tradesman (the incongruity of the choice found popular expression in the comic opera of ‘H.M.S. Pinafore,’ by Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan). But Smith's appointment belied all misgivings and proved a complete success. In the trying time when war with Russia seemed inevitable, and the cabinet was weakened in the early part of 1878 by the secession of the Earls of Derby and Carnarvon, Smith showed much firmness in council. Slow in forming a judgment, he had the enviable gift, once it was formed, of adhering to it without anxiety.
After Mr. Gladstone's great victory at the polls in 1880, the official conservative opposition in the House of Commons proved too mild and inoffensive for the younger members of the party. Of these, Lord Randolph Churchill, Mr. Arthur James Balfour, Sir John Gorst, and Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, who were known as the ‘Fourth Party,’ made frequent attacks on their leaders, Smith, Sir Stafford Henry Northcote (afterwards earl of Iddesleigh) [q. v.], and Sir Richard (now Viscount) Cross. Mr. Gladstone's ministry resigned office after their defeat in June 1885 on the beer duties, and Lord Salisbury formed a cabinet to complete the scheme of redistribution of seats rendered necessary by the Reform Act. Smith became secretary of state for war. Westminster, which had previously returned two members, was divided by the new Redistribution Act into three single-seated constituencies. Smith appropriately chose to represent the Strand division, for which he was returned by 5,645 against 2,486 votes in November 1885. In December Lord Carnarvon resigned the viceroyalty of Ireland and Sir William Hart Dyke that of chief secretary. The latter was a difficult post to fill. Lord Salisbury turned to Smith, who at once entered upon the duties of that invidious office. He was relieved of them in the following month by the defeat and resignation of the government. Mr. Gladstone succeeded Lord Salisbury as prime minister, but was overthrown in June 1886 on the rejection by the House of Commons of his bill for conferring home rule upon Ireland. In the general election which followed Smith increased his majority in the Strand division to 3,526. As a member of Lord Salisbury's second administration, he returned to the war office, Lord Randolph Churchill becoming chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House of Commons. Thoroughly as Smith had earned the confidence of his colleagues and the esteem of the house, few people suspected him of possessing the peculiar gifts essential to a leader of the house. Yet, when Lord Randolph Churchill suddenly resigned the leadership on 23 Dec. 1886, Lord Salisbury turned to Smith once more. He became first lord of the treasury and leader of the House of Commons, while Mr. Goschen joined the cabinet as chancellor of the exchequer. Despite the mediocrity of his oratorical power, Smith's leadership was an undoubted success. His judgment was admirable, and all parties acknowledged in him a conscientious politician removed by his great wealth from all suspicion of anxiety for office. The work of parliament had grown unmanageable; sittings were prolonged to extravagant hours; the Irish party had acquired a new importance by their alliance with the liberal party, and had lost none of their power of protracting debate [see under Parnell, Charles Stewart]. During four sessions and part of a fifth Smith was incessantly at his post; latterly, during the session of 1891, it was obvious that his health was giving way under the strain. His last attendance in the House of Commons was on 10 July. On 20 Aug. he was moved down to Walmer Castle, his official residence as warden of the Cinque ports, to which he had been appointed on the previous 1 May. He died there on 6 Oct. 1891.
Few men have secured so much honest respect from the House of Commons; he owed it to no brilliant qualities in debate, but to sterling sound sense and perfect integrity. ‘Punch,’ in its weekly sketches of parliament, conferred on him the sobriquet of ‘Old Morality.’
A portrait of Smith in middle age, by George Richmond, belongs to his son, and marble busts were executed after his death for the House of Commons and the Carlton Club.
In 1858 Smith married Emily, widow of an old friend, Benjamin Auber Leach, and eldest daughter of Frederick Dawes Danvers, clerk to the council of the duchy of Lancaster. She was created on 10 Nov. 1891 Viscountess Hambleden, with remainder