Burke's view of French affairs, however consistent with all his former political conceptions, put an end to more than one of his old political friendships. He had never been popular in the House of Commons, and the vehemence, sometimes amounting to fury, which he had shown in the debates on the India Bill, on the regency, on the impeachment of Hastings, had made him unpopular even among men on his own side. In May 1789 - that memorable month of May in which the states-general marched in impressive array to hear a sermon at the church of Notre Dame at Versailles - a vote of censure had actually been passed on him in the House of Commons for a too severe expression used against Hastings. Fox, who led the party, and Sheridan, who led Fox, were the intimates of the prince of Wales; and Burke would have been as much out of place in that circle of gamblers and profligates as Milton would have been out of place in the court of the Restoration. The prince, as somebody said, was like his father in having closets within cabinets and cupboards within closets. When the debates on the regency were at their height we have Burke's word that he was not admitted to the private counsels of the party.
Though Fox and he were on friendly terms in society, yet Burke admits that for a considerable period before 1790 there had been between them "distance, coolness and want of confidence, if not total alienation on his part." The younger Whigs had begun to press for shorter parliaments, for the ballot, for redistribution of political power. Burke had never looked with any favour on these projects. His experience of the sentiment of the populace in the two greatest concerns of his life, - American affairs and Indian affairs, - had not been likely to prepossess him in favour of the popular voice as the voice of superior political wisdom. He did not absolutely object to some remedy in the state of representation (Corr. ii. 387), still he vigorously resisted such proposals as the duke of Richmond's in 1780 for manhood suffrage. The general ground was this: - "The machine itself is well enough to answer any good purpose, provided the materials were sound. But what signifies the arrangement of rottenness?"
Bad as the parliaments of George III. were, they contained their full share of eminent and capable men; and, what is more, their very defects were the exact counterparts of what we now look back upon as the prevailing stupidity in the country. What Burke valued was good government. His Report on the Causes of the Duration of Mr Hastings's Trial shows how wide and sound were his views of law reform. His Thoughts on Scarcity attest his enlightenment on the central necessities of trade and manufacture, and even furnished arguments to Cobden fifty years afterwards. Pitt's parliaments were competent to discuss, and willing to pass, all measures for which the average political intelligence of the country was ripe. Burke did not believe that altered machinery was at that time needed to improve the quality of legislation. If wiser legislation followed the great reform of 1832, Burke would have said this was because the political intelligence of the country had improved.
Though averse at all times to taking up parliamentary reform, he thought all such projects downright crimes in the agitation of 1791-1792. This was the view taken by Burke, but it was not the view of Fox, nor of Sheridan, nor of Francis, nor of many others of his party, and difference of opinion here was naturally followed by difference of opinion upon affairs in France. Fox, Grey, Windham, Sheridan, Francis, Lord Fitzwilliam, and most of the other Whig leaders, welcomed the Revolution in France. And so did Pitt, too, for some time. "How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world," cried Fox, with the exaggeration of a man ready to dance the carmagnole, "and how much the best!" The dissension between a man who felt so passionately as Burke, and a man who spoke so impulsively as Charles Fox, lay in the very nature of things. Between Sheridan and Burke there was an open breach in the House of Commons upon the Revolution so early as February 1790, and Sheridan's influence with Fox was strong. This divergence of opinion destroyed all the elation that Burke might well have felt at his compliments from kings, his gold medals, his twelve editions. But he was too fiercely in earnest in his horror of Jacobinism to allow mere party associations to guide him.
In May 1791 the thundercloud burst, and a public rupture between Burke and Fox took place in the House of Commons.
The scene is famous in English parliamentary annals. The minister had introduced a measure for the division of the province of Canada and for the establishment of a local legislature in each division. Fox in the course of debate went out of his way to laud the Revolution, and to sneer at some of the most effective passages in the Reflections. Burke was not present, but he announced his determination to reply. On the day when the Quebec Bill was to come on again, Fox called upon Burke, and the pair walked together from Burke's house in Duke Street down to Westminster. The Quebec Bill was recommitted, and Burke at once rose and soon began to talk his usual language against the Revolution, the rights of man, and Jacobinism whether English or French. There was a call to order. Fox, who was as sharp and intolerant in the House as he was amiable out of it, interposed with some words of contemptuous irony. Pitt, Grey, Lord Sheffield, all plunged into confused and angry debate as to whether the French Revolution was a good thing, and whether the French Revolution, good or bad, had anything to do with the Quebec Bill. At length Fox, in seconding a motion for confining the debate to its proper subject, burst into the fatal question beyond the subject, taxing Burke with inconsistency, and taunting him with having forgotten that ever-admirable saying of his own about the insurgent colonists, that he did not know how to draw an indictment against a whole nation.