Obituary: Lord (Cecil) Parkinson of Carnforth

Conservative minister forced to resign after having an affair with his secretary. Picture: PA
Conservative minister forced to resign after having an affair with his secretary. Picture: PA
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Born 1 September, 1931. Died 22 January, 2016. Aged 84.

Lord Parkinson of Carnforth, who was twice Conservative Party chairman, pursued a spectacular Cabinet-rank political career which was overshadowed and all but destroyed by his affair with Sara Keays, his one-time secretary. This finally compelled a reluctant Margaret Thatcher in 1983 to return him to the back benches, only months after, as chairman of the Conservative Party, he had played a crucial role in the Tories’ landslide election victory.

But the affair – which was to haunt him all his life – ran counter to the then prime minister’s crusade for family values and, although she reputedly had a soft spot for the tall, handsome, silver-haired, clean-cut Cambridge athletics blue, she had no choice but to accept his resignation.

Miss Keays, who bore Mr Parkinson’s daughter, Flora, repeatedly claimed that he had reneged on a promise to leave his wife and marry her.

During his period on the back benches, Mrs Thatcher severely missed his advice, which invariably chimed with her own views. She restored him to the Cabinet as energy secretary in 1987 after some four years “in the wilderness”, but by that stage, there was little prospect of further advancement.

What made his temporary downfall all the more ironic was that Mr Parkinson was a Thatcherite through and through – he resigned from the Cabinet when John Major became prime minister, and was the only minister to remain loyal to Mrs Thatcher’s ideals throughout her 11 years in power.

He was made a Life Peer in the dissolution honours in 1992, and continued to fight the causes he believed in from the House of Lords, in particular his gnawing doubts about the European Union and Britain’s part in it.

However, in a surprise move, William Hague, who succeeded Mr Major as Tory leader in the summer of 1997, selected Lord Parkinson as party chairman – the second time he held the post. At the time, Lord Parkinson was almost 66.

Cecil Edward Parkinson, the son of a railway worker, was born on 1 September, 1931. He won a scholarship to Royal Lancaster Grammar School and moved on from there to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he won a blue for athletics. He also ran for a combined Oxford and Cambridge team against American universities.

He later became a chartered accountant and businessman and a director of many companies.

He entered Parliament through winning a by-election in Enfield West in 1970. He subsequently represented Hertfordshire South and Hertsmere, seats which were affected by boundary redistributions.

Four years after his arrival at Westminster he was made an assistant whip by Edward Heath, but he made little effort to conceal his growing dislike for the political direction taken by the Heath government.

Later he became an Opposition whip and was made a spokesman for trade in 1976. Mrs Thatcher appointed him minister for trade on her victory in 1979.

This was a job ideally suited to a personable businessman well skilled in the arts of private negotiation, but it gave him little opportunity to make any kind of mark in the Commons.

That chance came when, in 1981, Mrs Thatcher promoted him to paymaster-general and made him chairman of the party. In this crucial role, he quickly set about creating a more businesslike organisation. Every art of public relations was brought in to promote the party’s cause.

He was also a success on TV, and Mrs Thatcher brought him in as the fifth member of her inner “war cabinet” during the Falklands conflict. He looked to be unstoppable, and after the election, Mrs Thatcher made him trade and industry secretary. It seemed inevitable that he would soon be rewarded with the prize of becoming foreign secretary. It was not to be.

Even as he was masterminding the great Conservative victory of 1983, the Sara Keays affair, and the imminent birth of their daughter, were beginning to threaten his career. Rumours began to spread around Westminster about the impending disclosure of an affair in which he was involved.

The timing of the disclosure could not have been worse from a Tory viewpoint – it came at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool in 1983. That conference was supposed to be a celebration of the election triumph, but was dominated by the Parkinson affair.

Mrs Thatcher held on for a week, as Mr Parkinson and his wife Ann sat uncomfortably on the platform. But as each day passed, the disclosures became more damaging, and, on the last day of the conference, he quit – although the prime minister indicated his days as a Cabinet minister were not necessarily over.

His resignation, while most Tory delegates were at breakfast, followed an astonishing night of drama, during which Miss Keays issued a statement “to put the record straight” on Mr Parkinson’s alleged promise to marry her.

Details of the statement, relayed from Downing Street to Blackpool at 2am, left no hope that Mr Parkinson – who although ill at ease, had addressed the conference the previous day – could survive in office.

He had a brief meeting with Mrs Thatcher in her hotel suite at 2:15am and resigned at 8am.

In her book, A Question Of Judgment, Miss Keays claimed that Mr Parkinson had “begged” her to have an abortion and that he had “haggled over every pound” of support.

Mr Parkinson repeatedly claimed that he had voluntarily made more than adequate provision for Miss Keays and their daughter.

When in 1988, Flora underwent an operation for a brain tumour thought to cause epilepsy, his maintenance was increased from £3,000 a year to £10,000.

During his period out of government, Mr Parkinson was hit by another personal calamity, when one of his three daughters developed a heroin addiction. This led his wife to work with addicts and campaign for better facilities and understanding for them.

Mr Parkinson’s return to favour and power as energy secretary also restored to the Tory rank and file one of its greatest conference favourites – someone who had the gift of reflecting and representing the aspirations and achievements of the millions who identified with Thatcherism.

His mammoth task was the privatisation of the electricity industry, which proved to be a stormy undertaking even beyond Labour’s natural antipathy towards it.

Mr Parkinson finally secured Mrs Thatcher’s backing for his contentious plan to split the electricity generating industry into two competing groupings National Power (70 per cent) and Powergen (30 per cent), against the fierce resistance of the Central Electricity Generating Board chairman, Lord Marshall.

His successor in the role, the future Lord Wakeham, complained that Mr Parkinson had dithered indecisively over electricity privatisation and had left the whole affair in a mess. And even though the bookies still regarded Mr Parkinson as a possible successor to Mrs Thatcher, all the signs at Westminster were that he had achieved his peak and would go no higher.

In 1989 Mrs Thatcher appointed him transport secretary, and the Marchioness disaster on the River Thames was one of the first problems to confront him.

Then he pledged to spend £12 billion on motorway widening. But his lacklustre speech at the subsequent party conference suggested that the Treasury had stepped in to curb his free-spending ambitions.

There was talk at this time that he was being groomed to be Chancellor himself, but Mr Major pipped him at the post.

Eventually, when Mr Major became prime minister, Mr Parkinson resigned, saying that as he had decided not to fight the forthcoming election, it seemed a natural time for him to stand down.

But he did so without rancour, saying: “Britain has a fine new prime minister. You will be putting together your own ministerial team and, while I would have been proud to be a member of it, I felt it would have been selfish to stay, knowing I would not be fighting the next election.”

But not all Lord Parkinson’s subsequent public statements were as honeyed as this. In August 1993, he accused the prime minister of “a terrible 12 months” of drift and disunity, claiming that natural Tory voters “feel let down, even betrayed”.

However, in general terms, he remained a loyal Conservative in the House of Lords, although he was never afraid to speak out on issues on which he felt passionately, notably his totally Thatcherite stand on Europe.

He also re-embarked on a business life.

Lord Parkinson retired from his second stint as party chairman in 1998, and from then on kept a relatively low profile while carrying on with parliamentary work.

He formally retired from the Upper House last September, as he battled cancer.