Although he spent nearly 30 years in the House of Commons and served as a cabinet minister for nine of those years, in two Conservative administrations, James Prior, who has died aged 89, failed to fulfil his true potential.
A political career is peculiarly susceptible to the prevailing circumstances of the times and it was his misfortune that the benign paternalism that characterised his view of the nature of Conservative politics became distinctly unfashionable under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the party. He was nevertheless a profoundly significant figure in her government and was described at the time by a cabinet colleague as the one individual who was key to her success.
Prior was a clever and principled man whose air of complacent geniality disguised the keen brain of a sophisticated tactician. It was his lot in life at Westminster to provide political balance to the vastly different governments of both Thatcher and her predecessor Edward Heath, with whose approach to Conservative politics he was much more in sympathy. Had it not been for Heath’s unexpected defeat in the unnecessary February 1974 election and the subsequent Tory turmoil that produced Thatcher’s election as leader, Prior would have been an obvious future leader himself.
But when he stood in the second ballot of the 1975 leadership election he came a joint third with Geoffrey Howe (with William Whitelaw in second place), winning only 19 votes against Thatcher’s triumphant 146. When the Conservatives regained office in 1979, she dismissively rejected those who disagreed with her style of radical politics as being “wet”, and Prior was universally regarded as the leader of the dissident “wets” in the cabinet.
He was secretary of state for employment for two years, struggling with the competing difficulties of trade union reform and matching his instincts with the prime minister’s, before she transferred him in 1981 away from the economic heart of her government to become secretary of state for Northern Ireland. He attempted to move government policy forward in search of a resolution of the Troubles, but was frustrated by the lack of political commitment to progress from No 10.
Three years later he decided to leave politics and, four days after resigning from the government, became chairman of GEC, a post he retained until 1998. He left the Commons in the 1987 election and was made a life peer as Lord Prior the same year. He later described his first cabinet post, as minister of agriculture from 1970 until 1972, as the happiest period of his political career.
In his maiden speech as the newly elected member for Lowestoft, Suffolk, in November 1959, Prior spoke from his heart in a debate on a piece of employment legislation. “We have a duty, not only in economic terms, but also in social and moral terms, to make certain of giving every man a fair chance of having a decent day’s work,” he said.
In his memoirs, A Balance of Power (1986), he described this statement as his guiding principle and one which throughout his career he had tried to sustain as that of the Conservative party as well. His implicit suggestion was that he had failed to do this, for he wrote that it was only after resigning that he realised how unhappy he had been in recent years and how distinctly uncomfortable he felt about some aspects of Thatcher’s government policy.
Prior was the second son and youngest of four children born in Norwich into a comfortable middle-class family. His father, Charles, was a successful country lawyer and his mother, Aileen (nee Gilman), an active woman with a social conscience who would have made a good Liberal in the view of her youngest child. He went to Charterhouse school in Godalming, Surrey, where he was a contemporary of the future editor of the Times, William Rees-Mogg, the England cricket captain Peter May and the author Simon Raven, who depicted all of them pseudonymously in his published work. In Raven’s sequence of 10 novels, Alms for Oblivion, Prior was transformed into the character Peter Morrison.
He was commissioned in the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1946 for his national service, which he spent in India and Germany, before going to Pembroke College, Cambridge, to study agriculture. He changed to estate management after a year, was awarded a first and began work as a land agent and farmer. He had a naturally florid complexion and always exuded a bucolic image, even on the Commons frontbench. He was actually driving a tractor when a passing neighbour stopped him to suggest he should put his name forward to contest the then Labour-held seat of Lowestoft. He won a narrow majority, retained the seat until 1983 when it was abolished and then represented the successor constituency of Waveney.
Prior rose swiftly at Westminster. He was appointed as a parliamentary private secretary in 1963, became secretary of the party’s agricultural committee, an important body at the time, and in 1965 was appointed vice-chairman of the Conservative party with responsibility for candidates. When Heath won the leadership, the chief whip, Whitelaw, decided that Prior should be appointed as PPS to the leader of the opposition, believing that his approachable manner would help counter Heath’s air of aloof reserve, or “brusqueness amounting to rudeness”, as Prior called it. He was rewarded with his first cabinet post in the 1970 government and promoted to become leader of the House in 1972.
It was the miners’ pay claim in 1973 and subsequent strike, leading to the ill-judged decision to call an early general election, that proved the defining point of Heath’s career and eventually that of his loyal lieutenant. Prior had supported the government decision to introduce a prices and incomes policy, despite the previous commitment to a market economy, and argued for a swift election to resolve the confrontation with the miners, a tactic that could have worked.
The delay which ensued, however, allowed the industrial situation to deteriorate into the three-day week, with electricity black-outs on the other days, and the government’s reputation was irredeemably damaged by the time the election was called. Appointed shadow home secretary, Prior urged Heath to submit himself to early re-election as leader, but he demurred and the delay until February 1975, following the more decisive second Labour election victory in October 1974, proved fatal and sealed Thatcher’s triumph.
As the new leader’s shadow employment spokesman, Prior attempted to prepare a workable policy of trade union reform but found that he was already running into trouble with those in his own party who were more instinctively in tune with Thatcher. This was notably the case with Norman Tebbit, who derided him for being dangerously out of touch with the mood of the nation over the Grunwick dispute on trade union recognition in 1977.
His difficulties increased in office after 1979 when his patient approach on the subject was derided by colleagues such as Nigel Lawson, who wrote dismissively of Prior having “fancied himself in touch with trade-union thinking”. The reality was that he argued vociferously in cabinet against what was by then the prevailing economic orthodoxy – his own views were described as “a well-trodden route to disaster” by Lawson – and he was particularly critical of the controversial budget introduced by Howe in 1981. When Thatcher purged her cabinet of “wets” in the autumn, Prior was dispatched against his wishes to Belfast and his indignity was enhanced by her decision to replace him with a jubilant Tebbit.
His straightforward manner stood him in good stead in Northern Ireland. He had a tricky start because of his stated reluctance to take the post, but won himself a reputation as a decent man with all parties. His attempt to secure a degree of constitutional reform with the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly lacked support from the local political parties and made little impact. The mass break-out from the Maze prison, when 38 republicans escaped from jail, was an acute embarrassment for Prior, who contemplated resignation at the time.
While travelling the world for GEC, Prior also accepted a number of other positions on company boards, including Allders, East Anglian Radio, Barclays International, Barclays Bank, United Biscuits and J Sainsbury. He also served on the boards of various educational, industrial and charitable organisations.
In 1954 he married Jane Lywood, and they had three sons and a daughter. His son David was the Conservative MP for North Norfolk from 1997 until 2001, when he lost the seat, and last year was made Lord Prior of Brampton on being appointed minister for NHS productivity.
Jane died last year and he is survived by his children.
• James Michael Leathes Prior, Lord Prior, politician and businessman, born 11 October 1927; died 12 December 2016
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