Cecil Parkinson, who has died aged 84 after suffering from cancer, rose from humble origins to become an archetypal figure of 1980s Conservatism, with a string of ministerial appointments in government.
These culminated in his becoming trade secretary at the start of Margaret Thatcher’s triumphalist second administration, following her landslide, post-Falklands general election victory in 1983. He was a smooth, sleekly coiffured minister for whom the highest reaches of government were predicted, but he was brought low within months by the public exposure of a long-running affair with his parliamentary secretary Sara Keays, who was pregnant with his child.
His was only the first of a string of ministerial scandals of the period, often centring on marital infidelity in a government only too prepared to lecture the public about morality and propriety and sometimes to attempt to legislate for it as well. Parkinson’s downfall followed what was to become a regular pattern too: newspaper exposure, attempted cover-up, denial, desperate attempts to hang on, followed inevitably by enforced resignation.
Parkinson proved to be more fortunate than some of his successors, however, as his parliamentary career survived and he later became a minister and chairman of the Conservative party once more. But his reputation never really recovered and a distinct aura of caddishness remained, especially when it became known that he had never seen the child and had made strenuous efforts to prevent his neglect becoming public knowledge.
Although more snobbish Tories of the old school tended to deride men like Parkinson as part of the garagiste tendency – socially inferior, with a background in trade and the lower orders rather than the public schools and the professions – it would be fairer to see them as upwardly mobile beneficiaries of the 1944 Education Act, enabled to transcend social barriers and make money to underwrite their political careers through lucrative new occupations.
In Parkinson’s case, he was the son of a railway worker, Sidney Parkinson, in Carnforth, north Lancashire, where the railway scenes of Brief Encounter were filmed. He was educated at Lancaster Royal grammar school, before gaining a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, initially to study English under FR Leavis – a slightly mind-boggling conjunction – before switching to study law. In those days he was a Labour supporter and perhaps more interested in athletics than politics; he ran for the university at 200 and 400 yards.
Leaving with a third-class degree, he qualified as an accountant and embarked on the task of securing his future prosperity, buying a specialist engineering firm. In 1957 he married Ann (nee Jarvis), whom he could never quite bring himself to leave during his affair with Keays, and she subsequently stood by him when his philandering was exposed. They had three daughters, Mary, Emma and Joanna.
By 1970 he was trying for parliament. He was initially unsuccessful at Northampton in the June general election that brought Ted Heath to power, but entered the Commons a few months later at a by- election in Enfield West, following the sudden death of the chancellor, Iain Macleod. Parkinson’s parliamentary career would be in a series of seats around the north London suburbs in Hertfordshire.
Suave and good-looking in a way that was appealing to some selection committees: slicked hair, chiselled features; smooth in manner and reasonable in tone, with no hint of chippiness, Parkinson made his way through the ranks in a series of strategically useful positions. He was parliamentary private secretary to Michael Heseltine at the Trade department during the Heath administration, then a whip in opposition, then an opposition spokesman on trade, going back to the department when Thatcher came to power in 1979.
He was one of her most assiduous courtiers. In a sign of her favour towards the sort of handsome, self-made men she much admired, Parkinson embarked on a rapid rise in the following four years: paymaster general, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and at the same time Conservative party chairman. As such, he helped mastermind the 1983 landslide – though given the previous year’s Falklands victory and the state of the Labour party at the time, perhaps this was not very difficult – and was duly rewarded by being made trade secretary following the election.
He was already being spoken of as a possible chancellor or even party leader when, within four months, during that year’s triumphant party conference in Blackpool, the revelations about Keays emerged. Keays had been Parkinson’s secretary for much of the previous 12 years and his longstanding mistress as well. According to her understandably embittered subsequent account, he had promised to divorce his wife and marry her on several occasions and had enticed her back after she secured a job working at the European commission in Brussels.
Harbouring political ambitions herself, she had made it to the party’s candidates’ list, but their discreet relationship was derailed when she became pregnant. She broke the news to him at her London flat during the election campaign and was appalled by his response that she must have an abortion, or she would destroy his career: “I was shattered by his reaction ... but I had not expected this ... He said that I had better understand that he would never marry me and that if I had the baby, he would never have anything to do with me again and never wanted to see the child,” she wrote two years later in A Question of Judgement (1985).
Parkinson admitted his affair to the prime minister – who was usually more indulgent of the peccadilloes of her colleagues, particularly those she liked, than of the public at large – and to close colleagues. They gave him their support when the story emerged in Private Eye, just as the party’s annual conference convened, with MPs, ministers and journalists unusually accessible to each other in the bars and corridors of the Imperial hotel, Blackpool, which allowed for the undignified spectacle of Parkinson being pursued up the stairs to his room, followed by a raucous crowd (of which I was a member) shouting questions at his retreating back.
Despite a disreputable Tory attempt to smear Keays as a promiscuous golddigger, the outcome was inevitable and Parkinson had to resign from the party chairmanship and ministerial office and return unwillingly and with little grace to the backbenches. He did indeed make grudging financial provision for Keays, who retreated to the West Country, to raise their daughter, Flora, born the following January, single-handedly. Parkinson never spoke to Keays again, nor saw the child, nor registered his paternity by expressing any interest in her life whatsoever.
Indeed he successfully sought an injunction to prevent her being identified in any way in the media, unable even to appear in school photographs, a precaution that he claimed was to protect her, but which many saw as little better than an attempt to limit the damage to himself and curtail the public’s memory of the affair.
When it became known – once the injunction was lifted on the child’s 18th birthday – that Flora had emotional and learning difficulties and had been ill for much of her childhood, Parkinson’s reputation suffered further damage. In the words of the commentator George Hill: “The fondness of one woman, the prime minister, and the enduring fury of another, his one-time mistress Sara Keays, so dominate public and political perceptions of Cecil Parkinson that he seems to exist only as a reflection of other people’s ambitions and emotions.”
After four years as a backbencher, Parkinson was regarded as sufficiently rehabilitated by Thatcher and the chief whip John Wakeham to return to office as energy secretary, following the 1987 election, and then to be transferred to the Department of Transport two years later, both jobs regarded as of lesser importance than his previous portfolio. He resigned ministerial office in 1990 when Thatcher herself resigned, perhaps acknowledging that his time had passed.
Within two years he had gone to the House of Lords with a life peerage and published an autobiography, Right at the Centre (1992). There was one final service to the party, in the wake of the Tories’ 1997 electoral defeat, when he returned to his old post as party chairman for a year to steady the dispirited ship: it was during this period that the party instituted the reform of electing its future leaders by a vote of the membership rather than MPs, a move that ensured the debacle of first Iain Duncan Smith’s and then Michael Howard’s periods in charge. Parkinson retired from the Lords in September last year.
It is difficult to assess his achievements as a minister, partly because his career was truncated, but also because he left no significant legislative mark or achievement. Colleagues regarded him as likable, but a ditherer and probably over-promoted by Thatcher. He was, however, smooth and good on television and with party activists: approachable and unstuffy. He remained trim – perhaps attributable to the golf club memberships he held alongside those of his London clubs.
He is survived by Ann, and by his daughters.
• Cecil Edward Parkinson, Lord Parkinson, politician, born 1 September 1931; died 22 January 2016
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