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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

Cecil Parkinson: Maggie's Political Soulmate


During these awful and bleak times, I felt it would be the perfect opportunity to take a closer look to the careers of some political giants who don't get the recognition or remembrance they deserve. One of my greatest interests is political history and every Friday I shall publish an article outlining the career and some interesting facts about some political heroes who are unfortunately no longer with us. Last week I looked at the life of the barrister who was the architect of Thatcherism, Sir Keith Joseph who cofounded the Centre of Policy Studies with the Iron Lady; in this week's piece, I'll be looking at the life of Cecil Parkinson, the face of Thatcherism and smooth talking Minister who was a key player in Maggie's first Cabinet when elected in 1979. A glittering career, including serving as the Conservative Party's most successful Chairman, leading the election campaign in 1983, but his high expectations were cut short and unfortunately, he never reached its full potential due to a very much publicised affair with his former secretary. 

Cecil Parkinson was born on 1st September 1931 in small town of Carnforth, Lancashire, just north east of Morecambe Bay, his father Sydney was a warehouseman for a corn dealer but more notably a railway lineman; his mother, Bridget was a Northern Irishwoman from County Tyrone. The Parkinsons were a typical northern, small c conservative family, who worked on the principles of meritocracy and hard work, his grandmother was a midwife and served as Chairman of the local group, Unionist Women – they were very much the epitome of northern, working class conservatism. However, the young Cecil who attended the Royal Lancaster Grammar School, as a result of winning a scholarship, would be a staunch Socialist in his younger days, including being elected Treasurer of his local branch of the Labour League of Youth and was an active campaigner in the 1950 general election for Attlee's Labour Party. He was a great sportsman in his younger days, being a keen rugby player, sprinter as well as a long distance athlete, however, it would be religion which led his way and won a scholarship again to study Divinity at Cambridge University, although he would soon abandon his pursue of a career in the Holy Orders in favour of reading English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge; he wouldn't take his studies as serious as his sports though, he competed against Oxford University in running and sprinting events but this would have a detrimental effect on the young Parkinson as he would only achieve a low Second in English and a Third in Law. Whilst still at Cambridge he would complete his mandatory national service in the RAF, an experience that he absolutely hated and even considered being a conscientious objector, however, would decide against that and complete the two years between 1950 and 1952.

During his time at Cambridge, Parkinson had become more disillusioned with the Labour Party, Attlee had long left and it was now under the stewardship of Hugh Gaitskell, although he hadn't been a member for some time he was becoming less and less aligned with the Party. He was starting to transition towards conservatism and the Conservative Party, now being led at the time by Sir Winston Churchill's long serving Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden; however, it wouldn't be until he met the daughter of a well off Hertfordshire builder and construction manager that he would fully support conservatism as an ideology. This was Ann Jarvis, she had a massive impact on Parkinson's life and career as a whole, her greatest impact was convincing him to join the Party and get involved. By this time, he was working for the Metal Box Company, an international supplies group, as a trainee manager, this was how he met Ann who he would marry shortly after meeting her in 1957. He took a completely different career path again when he began training as a chartered accountant working for West Wake and Price Ltd., this was what he would eventually setting on as his basis before a career in politics, founding his own chartered accountancy firm in 1961 called Parkinson Hart Securities.

Now an active member of the Conservative Party, he would become Chairman of Hemel Hempstead Conservative Association, with one Norman Tebbit as his vice-Chairman, he would be selected to stand for Parliament at the 1970 general election in the marginal Labour seat of Northampton. However, Parkinson would be up against the more than colourful sitting MP, Reggie Paget who had attended Eton and then Trinity College, Cambridge where he read Law but didn't graduate. Paget was an interesting character who deserves a biography of his own, he was the sixth generation of a family which had produced five generations of Conservative MPs so when he joined the Labour Party and became an MP in 1945 for Northampton after unsuccessfully standing there in 1935 it came as very much a shock for his family. Paget was unbelievably an advocate for Nazi Field Marshal Erich von Manstein during his trial at Nuremberg in 1945, he wouldn't be sent to his death and would retain his rank util his natural death in 1973, Paget would write a biography of Manstein in 1957 whilst sitting as a Labour MP, including detailing his strategy which was used to invade France in 1940.He was a loyal supporter of Gaitskell and served as the junior Opposition Spokesman for the Royal Navy and British Army between 1960 and 1964 as well as being more than a critic of Harold Wilson during his leadership bid in 1963 following the tragic and sudden death of the Labour leader. He would remain MP for Northampton until 1974 when boundary changes abolished his constituency, he initially supported Britain's membership of the EEC but would later describe it, in a speech to the House of Lords during the 1975 referendum campaign, as "impotent in the face of Soviet threat" and believed they were essentially useless in bringing down the Communist bloc. In later life, he would even be in a relationship with Diana Spearman, the widow of former Conservative MP, Sir Alexander Spearman.

It was this scepticism of the now Prime Minister, Harold Wilson was what produced one of the most memorable lines in Parkinson's career and it wasn't even him who uttered the words! During the first hustings in Northampton, Paget remarkably said "you will find that Mr Parkinson and I disagree about very little, but we do disagree about one thing – Mr Parkinson dislikes Mr Wilson, the Prime Minister. I hate him." It was from then that Parkinson had little impact in the constituency and was understandably rather taken aback from his opponent's words at the first public meeting of the general election. Although unsuccessful at the general election which produced a Conservative majority government headed by Ted Heath, he would stand again soon after in the November 1970 by-election following the unexpected death of Chancellor, Iain Macleod. Macleod had served in several governments, dating back to serving as Churchill's Minister of Health from 1952, and shadow governments as well as this he had held the Conservative safe seat of Enfield West since 1950. Parkinson won the by-election with over double the percentage points and votes of his nearest competitor, Herbert King of the Labour Party and would be appointed as PPS to Michael Heseltine, the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping in 1972. In the dying days of the Heath administration, Parkinson was appointed from a PPS to a junior government whip; the February 1974 general election saw several constituencies change and Parkinson's was one of them, Enfield West was abolished and was subsequently returned as Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire South and would remain in the opposition whips' office following Harold Wilson's formation of a minority government.

Grandees in the Conservative Party, many of whom also disliked Mrs Thatcher, didn't approve of Parkinson being on the fringes of government, never mind at the centre; he was seen as a young smooth talking banker who'd recently came into money, following his success in the building and construction trade with his father-in-law. However, Thatcher was on a programme of change and wanted to move the Party away from the connotation that it was an old boys' club and Parkinson was appointed as an Opposition Trade Spokesman in 1976 and on the general election success in 1979 was appointed as a junior Minister in the Department for Trade, under John Nott. He was seen by Mrs Thatcher as the ultimate Thatcherite and it was paramount to promote him and like minded MPs, Norman Tebbit and Nigel Lawson to the Cabinet, this eventually came in September 1981 when the Iron Lady started disposing of the wets in the Cabinet. Parkinson was chosen to take over from Lord Thorneycroft as Party Chairman, in preparation of the 1983 general election which would see the most Thatcherite manifesto and the biggest ever Conservative Party success in the modern political system. Parkinson would also assume the role of Paymaster General, a Cabinet position within the Cabinet Office and directly responsible to the Treasury, replacing Francis Pym, a notorious wet who'd been reshuffled to Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Parkinson would be responsible for running the most successful Conservative general election campaign in modern electoral history, delivering a 144 seat majority for Mrs Thatcher in 1983 over Michael Foot's Labour Party. Thatcher was a huge admirer of Parkinson, saying he was a "dynamic, full of common sense, a good accountant, an excellent presenter and, no less important, on my wing of the Party", he was not only seen by her as this but also hinted to be her natural successor when she decided to leave Office. They were political soulmates and very much in line with each other, Parkinson said they were such close allies because neither of them was from "the old Tory establishment who had great ancestors and distant relatives as Conservative MPs in the days gone by". In 1982, during the Falklands War, he was promoted to the War Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, again succeeding Pym in the role, he was seen as a rising star in the Party and his planning for the general election soon got underway. The campaign saw the biggest general election majority since Stanley Baldwin's 210 seat in 1924 and has only ever been beaten since by Tony Blair in 1997 when he achieved a 179 seat majority, this would give him huge credibility in the Party and was seen as an electoral genius. Parkinson had stuck with promotion company Saatchi and Saatchi, working closely with the brothers during the campaign to produce the biggest landslide victory for over half a century. On the morning of the 1983 general election, the retiring Home Secretary and de facto Deputy PM, Willie Whitelaw said Parkinson could "take any of the three Great Offices of State and make a success of either one of them", he was in particularly tipped to again succeed Francis Pym as Foreign Secretary who had said "landslides on the whole don't produce successful governments."

All whilst preparing for that general election success, he would make radical reforms at Conservative Central Office, for the first time engaging with members directly and working to reform the Party's voluntary and organisational structure. This was a stark contrast to his seasoned predecessor Peter Thorneycroft, who had served in Churchill's Cabinets, Parkinson brought in the renowned Christopher Lawson from the food giant Mars to head up the Party's marketing, working with the promotion gurus, the Saatchi brothers, as well as this, he was the first to introduce targeted mailing campaigns to members and potential members. His revolutionary methods at CCO changed the way the Party campaigned during general elections, the way they engaged with members and how they recruited new members.

However, the celebrations of the landslide victory were cut short, or at least they were for Cecil Parkinson, his former secretary Sara Keays revealed to him that she was carrying his child as a result of an affair. Parkinson, who was tipped to be Foreign Secretary in Thatcher's new look Cabinet, full of 'dries'. Mrs Thatcher would initially support Parkinson, saying Anthony Eden's notorious womanising didn't hold him back from serving as Churchill's Foreign Secretary and the later as Prime Minister, however she would eventually decide against Parkinson's appointment to the Foreign Office and instead opt to make him Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the newly created super-department formed from the merger of the Departments of Trade, led by Lord Cockfield and Industry, led by Patrick Jenkin. The media eventually caught wind of the scandal in the autumn and the scrutiny was too much, so he was eventually forced to resign in October 1983, just months after the general election and being almost certain to take a Great Office of State, he was replaced by Norman Tebbit as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. On reflection, Parkinson described the whole situation and his almighty fall from grace as like "being in a car crash – you can't move. Just utterly stunned".

He returned to the backbenches and it was almost certain that he would never to sit on the frontbench again, however, by the time the 1987 general election came around, he had reconciled with the Party faithful and Margaret Thatcher was dropping hints of a return to government following the election. Thatcher's other Cabinet loyalist and one of her staunchest allies, Norman Tebbit, the Party Chairman in charge of the election campaign, privately told her he was to step down from government in order to spend more time with his wife who had been severely injured in the Brighton bomb attack in 1984. She never took pleasure in letting Parkinson leave the Cabinet and now with Tebbit's departure she was keen to promote him back to the frontbenches to have as many undoubtedly Thatcherite Ministers as possible, at a time when there was growing support for her departure among some MPs and members such as Michael Heseltine.

Following the reduced 102 seat Commons majority in 1987, Parkinson was made Secretary of State for Energy, replacing Peter Walker who had been moved to the post of Secretary of State for Wales, included in his role as Energy Secretary were the dealing with the long term impacts of the 1984-85 miners' strikes as well as investment in alternative sources of energy, especially renewable and nuclear energy. However, Parkinson's main task would be the privatisation of the electricity industry which would eventually happen in December 1990 at the creation of 12 regional electricity companies, this would be after Mrs Thatcher had left Office as PM and Parkinson had long been gone from the Department. However, it was he who would prepare the nationalised electricity grid for privatisation for his successor, John Wakeham to carry out.

His main success on his return to Cabinet would be in the final months and days of the Thatcher government, he was reshuffled sideways to Transport in order to replace the sacked Paul Channon; Channon had been unlucky with a series of tragic events in his department, including the recent King's Cross fire, the crash of a British Midland plan on the M1, the Clapham Junction train crash and then perhaps most tragically the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie. John Prescott, the Shadow Transport Secretary gave Channon a tough time in the Commons for underfunding the railway network which he said led to the aforementioned tragedies, unfair it may have been but Thatcher dispersed of Channon in the summer of 1989 and replaced him with Parkinson who was determined to make a name for himself, again. In an interview a few years later, Parkinson described his rise to the Cabinet in 1987 as one "determined to remove disgraced from the title of disgraced former Cabinet Minister which I'm so often labelled". Transport was Parkinson's perfect chance to rebrand himself and regain the immense public support he enjoyed in the first half of 1983, he done this by securing significant funding for huge rail infrastructure projects across London, connecting the newly developed financial district and docklands regenerations to the suburbs of the capital. Not only that, he was interested in reopening some of the branch lines cut by Arthur Beeching in the 1960s under Wilson's Labour government, in order to improve the mobility of labour and make railways more attractive for private investors when British Rail was eventually and soon to be privatised.

He was once favourite to replace Nigel Lawson as Chancellor but when he did resign in 1989, Foreign Secretary John Major was chosen to take up the role of Second Lord of the Treasury, Parkinson's well known spark had apparently gone, or it certainly wasn't there at least. He was competent in both the Departments of Energy and then Transport although the complexities of the privatisation of the national grid did prove a stumbling block for the former grassroots favourite.

He was one of the staunchest Ministers ever to have served in one of Mrs Thatcher's governments, by the time November 1990 had came around it was visibly apparent that he wouldn't have much use for Thatcher's successor as it looked increasingly like Michael Heseltine. However, Heseltine dropped out of the leadership race and she stood down to allow Cabinet Ministers to run, it was off limits for Parkinson for two reasons, the first being that he could never have the credibility of the public to serve as PM and it would've been a disaster in a general election; secondly, he was genuinely appalled at the treatment of his boss by some of his colleagues including fellow Ministers, it was then he made his decision to step down also. In the last ever Cabinet meeting held by Mrs Thatcher when she read her resignation statement to them, she repetitively broke down in tears during the prepared speech, Parkinson was visibly upset by it and emotionally said "for God's sake James, you bloody read it" to Lord Chancellor, James Mackay. Parkinson would resign as Secretary of State for Transport, also on 28th November 1990, the same day Mrs Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister; he begrudgingly supported John Major as Thatcher's successor, long after she herself had declared her support for him, but wouldn't be complimentary to the new PM during the two years prior to the 1992 general election where he stood down as an MP. It was in 1991 that he founded and chaired the right wing, Thatcherite supporting group Conservative Way Forward Group, whilst serving as Director there, it would be a key player in a bandwagon of Thatcherites attacking John Major, primarily over his noticeably week leadership and European policy.

On his retirement from politics, he was made Lord Parkinson of Carnforth, his hometown, however he would remain active in his business dealings which had been put on hold during his time in Parliament, he would serve as director of 14 companies after leaving the Commons, including one construction firm which was behind a failed bid to build the revolutionary Channel Tunnel.

In 1997, when Major resigned as leader of the Party following Blair's landslide, William Hague won the resulting leadership contest, still in his 30s he was seen as the future of the Party. He appointed the now Lord Parkinson as Party Chairman, the role he served so successfully for Thatcher who had supported the Richmond MP's leadership bid. However, his year as Party Chairman would be stained with internal battles with Party CEO, Archie Norman MP, clashing on the restructuring of the Party, Norman's reforms did eventually happen to the annoyance of Parkinson, however were seen by members and some MPs alike as a massive disaster. He stood down and entered full retirement, making few public appearances from the summer of 1998.

Parkinson passed away after battling colon cancer on 22nd January 2016, aged 84, he was survived by his wife Ann who had stuck with him despite the revelation of the affair with Sara Keays; he was also survived by all of his children, including Flora Keays who suffers from learning disabilities.

Rest in peace, The Rt. Hon. Cecil Edward Parkinson PC, Lord Parkinson of Carnforth 

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