Iain pays tribute to one of his political mentors
Cecil Parkinson, who died today at the age of 84, belonged, albeit fleetingly, to that unfortunate group of politicians known as ex future Prime Ministers. At the peak of his political powers in mid 1983 he was seen as a natural successor should Margaret Thatcher have fallen under the proverbial bus. But it was not to be. His affair with his secretary Sara Keays led to his resignation from the Cabinet and four years in the political wilderness.
Cecil Edward Parkinson was born in 1931 and grew up in the Lancashire railway town of Carnforth.. A chartered accountant by profession, and a partner in West< Wake & Price from 1961 to 1971, he made his name – and money – in the building world in the 1960s through his company Parkinson Hart Securities. Parkinson was a genial, suave, tall man, whose matinee idol looks could reduce Tory ladies of a certain age to jelly. He married Ann Jarvis in 1957 and together they raised three daughters.
Parkinson was first elected to Parliament at a 1970 by-election in Enfield West, following the death of the Chancellor, Iain Macleod. In the dying days of the 1970-74 Heath Government he became a junior whip, but it was with the election of Margaret Thatcher to the Conservative Party leadership which sparked his political rise. He specialised in trade policy in the Opposition period from 1976 to 1979 and became Minister of State for Trade in the first Thatcher administration. But it was his sudden promotion to become Chairman of the Conservative Party, replacing the octogenarian Lord Thorneycroft, in 1981 where he made his name.
By common consent he proved to be one of the most outstanding Conservative Party Chairmen of the late twentieth century. He reformed Conservative Central Office, recruiting several leading businessmen to play key roles in the marketing and organisation of the Party. Christopher Lawson was recruited from Mars to become director marketing and Parkinson oversaw the introduction of targeted direct mail campaigns to both recruit new members and raise money.
In April 1982, at the suggestion of Norman Tebbit, Parkinson became a key member of Margaret Thatcher’s five man Falklands War Cabinet. Tebbit felt that Thatcher needed some support in case the more dove like Francis Pym and Willie Whitelaw lost their collective nerve. He was highly successful in presenting the Government’s case during the three month conflict and his political stock was certainly on the rise.
During the following twelve months Parkinson was hardly off the nation’s TV screens attacking the newly formed SDP/Liberal Alliance and the unilateralist policy of Michael Foot’s Labour Party. June 10th 1983 should have been the happiest day of Cecil Parkinson’s life. In the early hours it became clear that the Conservative Party was heading for the biggest electoral landslide in its history. As architect of that victory Parkinson’s political career was at its summit.
In the early hours of that morning he told the Prime Minister that he had been having a long term affair with his secretary, Sara Keays, who was about to have his baby. Thatcher had planned to appoint Parkinson Foreign Secretary later that day thereby sending out the signal that he was her chosen heir. Instead she sent him to Trade & Industry. Four months later, in the middle of the Conservative Party’s annual conference, he was forced to resign after The Times printed Sara Keays’ allegations that Parkinson had promised to marry her, then reneged on the promise. Some commentators felt it deeply ironic that Parkinson resigned because he had decided to stay with his wife rather than leave her for his mistress.
Although Parkinson had only spent four months at the DTI he managed to privatise British Telecom and introduce changes to the way the Stock Exchange operated, known as the City’s ‘Big Bang’. These changes helped the London Stock Exchange maintain its competitive position against Frankfurt, New York and Hong Kong.
During his period out of the Cabinet Parkinson never hid his desire to return to the front of the political stage. This was not a sign of naked ambition or careerism, more of a desire to wipe the epithet “disgraced” from his name. He often said to friends that he was fed up with being described as the “disgraced former Tory Party Chairman” and the only way to rid himself of that description was to come back. But when he did return to the Cabinet in June 1987 he was never quite the same. Somehow the political spark had been extinguished. While he was a competent Energy Secretary, the complexities of electricity privatisation appeared too much for him and led to a sideways move to Transport, rather than the Treasury which he had long coveted.
When Margaret Thatcher fell in November 1990 Parkinson decided to leave too. He was genuinely sick to his stomach at the way his parliamentary colleagues had treated his political protector. This was graphically demonstrated during the last meeting of the Thatcher Cabinet. As she was reading out a prepared statement about her future she continually broke down in tears. It was all too much for Parkinson who blurted out to the Lord Chancellor, who was sitting beside her: “For God’s Sake James you bloody read it”
Parkinson’s contempt for Thatcher’s successor John Major was never easily hidden and his deservedly poorly reviewed 1992 memoirs, Right at the Centre, leave the reader with the distinct feeling that although he considered himself to be a key member of the Thatcherite vanguard, he had never quite achieved what he set out to.
He left parliament at the 1992 General Election and immediately went to the House of Lords as Lord Parkinson of Carnforth. This, however, was not the end of his political career. He became the founding Chairman of Conservative Way Forward, a ginger group committed to keeping the Thatcherite flame alive, and in 1998 Parkinson experienced a year long Indian Summer when William Hague brought him back into frontline politics as Party Chairman. It was not a happy year as he fought continual battles with the Party’s Chief Executive Archie Norman MP, whose McKinseyite approach to reforming the Party and Conservative Central Office proved to be something of a disaster.
He is survived by his wife Ann and their three daughters, and his daughter Flora, by Sara Keays.
I have many personal memories of Cecil. I first met him in January 1983 when I attended a reception at Number Ten as Chairman of the University of East Anglia Conservative students. Most of the Cabinet were there – I remember discussing with Cecil Parkinson the number of free running shoes he had been sent after a recent profile had announced to the world that he was a keen runner. He offered me a pair but it turned out his feet were much smaller than mine!
One of my main memories of running UEA Tories was a meeting we held in 1985 with Cecil Parkinson as guest speaker. He was slowly being rehabiliated after his 1983 resignation and we expected a big crowd in Lecture Theatre 1. Little did I know that when we walked in it was full to overflowing, with 900 students.
He got a standing ovation, which I was a little surprised at, as UEA was a very left wing university in those days. In fact, his reception was so good that it provoked the socialist workers’ crowd who tried to invade the stage. They failed at that due to the skilful work of members of the UEA Rugby Society, so then the eggs started coming in. None of them hit Cecil. They all hit Ann, his wife, and me. My new suit was ruined. Cecil was furious and shouted “which little lefty rat threw that at my wife?” The rest of the audience cheered and turned on the egg throwers who left without further incident. What a great meeting! Cecil loved it!
My next encounters with Cecil came in 1990, when he was Transport Secretary. In early 199 I was working for a public relations company called Charles Barker. I had been recruited to beef up their lobbying efforts. I truth I hated it. I was a fish out of water, and left after only three months. One of my clients was Vauxhall, and they wanted to meet Cecil Parkinson and show off their new electric car. I kept asking them what they wanted from him in terms of policy but they hadn’t got a clue. All they were interested in was a few pictures of him driving their new product and shaking hands with their chief executive. It was at that point I knew I could get no satisfaction working as a pimp, because that’s what lobbying really was in those days – matchmaking without consummation.
At the time, I was good friends with Cecil’s Special Advisor, a redoubtable lady called Elizabeth Buchanan. She had previously worked for Paul Channon and later became a private secretary to the Prince of Wales and Margaret Thatcher. Anyway, we sat together in the audience in Blackpool (I think) to listen to his party conference speech. Cecil had never been a great platform speaker, and this year was no different. He plodded through his speech but the audience wasn’t really that interested. At the end, Elizabeth grabbed my arm and whispered: “We must lead a standing ovation”. I dutifully got to my feet and applauded like mad. Unfortunately we were the only two who did. It was mortifyingly embarrassing.
In 2004 he and Ann came up to North Norfolk to speak at a fundraiser for my campaign. He arrived very late, having driven the wrong way down the M11. But he was in fine form.
At one point, many years ago (in 1996 I think) I approached him to ask if he would cooperate with a biography I planned to write about him. He thought about it very seriously, but in the end he decided not to because he knew that all anyone would be interested in was the real story of his affair with Sara Keays. It’s a book I would have loved to have written, as I believe his contribution to the Thatcher project has never really been told.
Despite his personal flaws, Cecil Parkinson was a towering political figure. I remain of the view that in different circumstances he could easily have succeeded Margaret Thatcher. Having said that, I am not sure he would necessarily have been a great Prime Minister. But I will always regard him as one of the nicest people I have met in British politics.