The historian Lord Acton is best known as Lord Rosebery's choice for the Regius Chair of Modern History at Cambridge University in 1895. This outcome was not the inexorable culmination an historian's career. It was rather a form of compensation for the failure of Acton's earlier ambitions for political or public office. Drawing on hitherto largely untapped archival material this article re-examines this crucial period in the final decade of Acton's life. To an extent, this is a study in failure. Acton's attempt to re-enter public life remained abortive. But this study goes beyond adding to our understanding of Acton's biography. His quest for public office furnishes a useful prism to study also the prolonged post-Gladstonian transition phase in Liberal politics in the middle part of the 1890s, its underlying ideological fissures and the problematic personal relations at the top of the Liberal Party.