"He is such a cold man," wrote Queen Victoria of Sir Robert Peel, "I can't make out what he means." His political peers were no more complimentary. An old adversary, the Irish nationalist Daniel O'Connell, compared Peel's smile to "the silver plate on a coffin", and Disraeli's denunciations were as vicious as they were unfair - yet they stuck.
A prime minister of great achievements, Peel none the less has a sour, dour reputation. Ironically, it is his latest biographer, Douglas Hurd, who delivers the coup de grâce. Hurd has set out to rehabilitate a man he greatly admires, and he shows that there is much to admire in this professional and competent leader. But neither Queen Victoria nor O'Connell, nor even Peel's nemesis Disraeli, did more harm to Peel's reputation than has his new and sympathetic biographer. "Reading Peel's letters," writes Hurd, "I am reminded of another prime minister for whom I worked closely for seven years in opposition and 10 Downing Street. Like Ted Heath, Peel was stiff in manner . . . was greatly admired by close colleagues . . . was impatient with contradiction [and was] apt to lash out particularly at his own supporters."
This does poor Sir Robert no favours. Peel is incomparably greater than that awkward, curmudgeonly mediocrity Edward Heath. Successful modern politicians' habit of drawing on their own experiences to illustrate political history is hedged round with limitations. Too often, it reveals only the quality and wisdom of the politician in question - and that depends on, in this case, one's view of Hurd's career.
As a historian, though, Hurd delivers a vivid and readable portrait of a semi-modern British titan. This biography is elegantly written, well researched and (usually) admirably sensible in its judgements. Peel, the son of a rich cotton-spinner, was educated at Harrow. Hurd writes rumly: "Eaton has produced more PMs but scattered over a longer period. Harrow lists her PMs on the programme of the annual festival of Harrow Songs. Speaking at this occasion, I commented that it must be convenient for Harrow to be able to print all its PMs on one page. This very Etonian remark was received with hisses."
Hurd's account of Peel's personal life is never less than touching. It is clear that he was a kind father and decent husband - though his unrelieved wholesomeness sometimes makes us yearn for the debaucheries of his notorious lord chancellor, Lord Lyndhurst. Peel was in some ways one of the first Victorians: he was deeply shocked by the adulterous bed-hopping of Regency bucks such as his rival "Lord Cupid" Palmerston. In 1820, he married Julia, a general's daughter, who inspired an outpouring of romantic verse:
The sailor's home is on the main
The warrior's on the tented plain
The infant's on the mother's breast
But where thou art is home to me
And home without thee cannot be.
Under Lord Liverpool, then Canning and Goderich, Peel was the first modern home secretary. In 1829, he founded the police - the "Peelers", still known in his honour as "Bobbies". A superb administrator with a practical understanding of finance and business, Peel became the mainstay of the Tory party - but he was commendably unafraid of U-turns, first on Catholic emancipation and later on the Corn Laws.
Peel's Tory party had already, surprisingly, survived the Great Reform Act of 1832: "As I studied Peel leading the opposition after the Great Reform Bill," writes Hurd, "I read of David Cameron's first encounter with Tony Blair . . . Cameron's offer to help the government carry the good parts of education reform . . . compared exactly with Peel's concept of opposition." In 1834, King William IV removed the Whig prime minister Lord Melbourne and invited Peel to form a government. His first short administration began with a wonderful, revealing comedy that provides Hurd with his best passage. Peel was on holiday abroad when King William and the Duke of Wellington decided he had to become PM. As no one knew where he was, a 24-year-old royal secretary, James Hudson, was sent on a hilarious odyssey from Dover to Paris, and thence to Turin, Milan, Florence and Rome, where he finally found the unruffled Peel and offered him the premiership. As for his modern-day counterpart, Hurd suggests, political transformation was the order of the day. The next month, Peel issued his Tamworth manifesto, promising that the Tories would "reform to survive", and laid the foundations of modern Conservatism.
In 1841, Peel won a landslide election, proving that the Reform Act had not, as expected, prevented the Tories becoming the party of the respectable middle class. "For the first time in British history," writes Hurd, "a government had been overturned not by the king or a vote in parliament, but by a vote of the British electorate." Hurd delivers a fine scene of parliamentary drama when Disraeli attacks Peel, who responds by revealing the young Disraeli's shameless begging for a position in one of Peel's governments. The anecdote reveals both Disraeli's recklessness - he had the chutzpah to deny it - and Peel's admirably haughty disdain - he failed to produce the letter that would have destroyed his attacker for ever.
Peel's sensible government of talented and vigorous ministers was to be dominated by the tragedy of the Irish potato blight, the consequent famine and Peel's inevitable decision to repeal the Corn Laws. This destroyed the party he had just created for another 20 years, and he left office unhappily.
Throughout his career, Peel came up against flamboyant, ruthless, gifted politicians - first Canning, then Disraeli and Palmerston - who were less trusted but much more fun to watch and vote for than himself. Peel was more a Heath or perhaps a Baldwin - who are, one guesses, Hurd's sort of politicians - than a Disraeli, a Palmerston or a Churchill. One senses throughout the book that Hurd sympathises with Peel and deeply prefers this plain-speaking, unshowy breed of leader. In one of his many shrewd epigrammic reflections, Hurd points out that Disraeli, in middle age, learned that sometimes a politician has to pretend to be boring to win over boring people.
There are other Hurdian epigrams: "Even the most awful tragedy becomes trite when often repeated," he writes. I particularly liked this one: "Government is the art of matching what you want to do with what you have to do. Happy prime ministers find on arriving in office that events of the moment are propelling them in the direction which they want to take anyway."
Some of these reflections are obvious references to today's conventional wisdom - yet they are not necessarily true. Peel's "disastrous British invasion", writes Hurd, "together with the next one in Disraeli's time, remains fresh in the minds of Afghans though not, apparently, in those of British policymakers". Can this be a serious comment? It is certainly hard to fight a war in Afghanistan, but is Hurd suggesting that after 9/11 it would have been more sensible to leave the Taliban regime in place?
This books is, however, full of interesting and offbeat detail. Hurd reveals that the Order of the Garter was in the gift of the prime minister from the mid-19th century until 1946, when Attlee returned it to the monarch, a rare example of the crown regaining lost power in the modern age. He also tells us that "Peel was the last prime minister not to be photographed".
Some of the detail is intriguingly contemporary. In the acknowledgements, we learn that William Hague, the biographer of Pitt, advised Hurd on his research: "buy books, don't borrow". Then, more challengingly: "another politician who helped was Gordon Brown. I went to see him at the Treasury on a matter related to prisons. I soon found myself discussing Peel in relation to the doctrines of the Church of Scotland and the ethical views of Adam Smith."
Despite the quirky details - which culminate in Peel's death in 1850, when he was thrown by his horse on Rotten Row - Hurd cannot quite rescue him from his chronic lack of charisma. He does, however, confirm Peel's stature, showing that he invented One Nation Toryism - the "left-wing conservatism" of Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath - before Disraeli: "While Disraeli spun the phrases that survive, Peel clumsily and sometimes unattractively took the actions that underpinned Britain's strength and prosperity. 'One Nation' is a phrase from one of Disraeli's novels; it describes a sense of direction established by Peel."
Now that Hurd has successfully made Peel sympathetic, if not magnetic, I hope he will next turn his attention to our greatest unknown prime minister, who won the Napoleonic wars and gave Peel his start in government: Lord Liverpool.
Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Young Stalin" is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson