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Educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge, he started his career as a barrister but entered Parliament in 1806 as Whig M.P. for Leominster. After sitting for two other constituencies, he lost his seat in 1812. He re-entered Parliament in 1816, once again sitting for a number of constituencies over the next few years, and first took government office, as Chief Secretary of Ireland, from 1827 to 1828.
In 1828 Lamb succeeded his father as Viscount Melbourne and took his seat in the House of Lords. Under the Grey ministry elected in 1830, he was Home Secretary. Although not a great supporter of parliamentary and social reform, Melbourne dealt with outbreaks of unrest in the early 1830s judiciously, urging local authorities to use their existing powers rather than to bring in armed forces.
On Grey's resignation in 1834, Melbourne was asked to form a ministry. He was dismissed by King William IV later in the year, but was reappointed as Prime Minister in 1835 and served, with a short break in 1839, until 1841. When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, he became her trusted political adviser and friend.
Melbourne was not a politician of much conviction or energy, preferring not to legislate wherever possible, but to reach compromises. Some historians have suggested that Melbourne left much of the reforming work of government to Lord John Russell in the House of Commons. His years after resigning from government in 1841 were spent in ill health.