The general election of 1857 had been precipitated by an incident between Britain and the Chinese Qing Dynasty. In October 1856, the Chinese seized an unregistered British ship with a Chinese crew. The ship's Union Jack was torn down, an action which raised the ire of the British Consul at Canton, Harry Peakes. Despite the fact that the ship was unregistered, and therefore had no legal protection from interception, Peakes argued that the Chinese did not know this at first, and that the tearing down of the flag was a disrespectful action which deserved retribution. Peakes promptly delivered this retribution by launching an attack on the palace of the Chinese Commissioner Ye Mingchen. The palace and its surrounding area was destroyed. Ye retaliated by launching a campaign against the British in the area.
Back in Britain itself, Peakes' actions were met with disapproval in the House of Commons. To the surprise of many parliamentarians, the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston voiced his support for Peakes. Tense arguments followed in Westminster, with Palmerston insinuating that anyone opposed to what had happened had "an anti-English feeling". A censure motion was passed on the government, and Palmerston announced that a general election was to be held. The results showed that Palmerston's stance had been a very popular one, as his Whig party was returned to government with an increased majority over the Conservatives. Between them, the two parties won all but 13 seats across Britain and Ireland.
In Ireland, the Conservatives remained strong in Ulster while also picking up seats in Mayo, Waterford City, Bandon, and New Ross. The Whigs returned a much better showing than they had in the last election, when much of their support in Ireland had been sapped by the Irish Brigade. This time around, the Brigade was the minor party, with strong losses everywhere but Meath. The Brigade's lack of a strong leadership had doomed it, and its fraught relationship with the Catholic church had not helped it either. It disintegrated in 1858, with most of its members rejoining the Whigs, who were soon to rebrand themselves as a new party.