British Conservative politician
Cecil Parkinson, now the Baron Parkinson, is the former Chairman of the Conservative Party and cabinet minister who served under Margaret Thatcher, who is however most famous for fathering an illegitimate daughter borne by his former secretary, Sarah Keays.
He was born Cecil Edward Parkinson at Carnforth in Lancashire on the 1st September 1931. Although often described in later life as a "Tory grandee", his origins were authentically working class, and like many of his generation, education was to prove to be his path to success. Having passed the eleven plus he won a place at the Lancaster Royal Grammar School and subsequently went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he read English. After graduating in 1955 he became a management trainee at the Metal Box Company before deciding to train as a certified accountant, qualifying in 1960. He later went into business on his own account, and acting on his father-in-law's advice acquired the assets of a bankrupt northern building firm, which he subsequently built into a successful and profitable business.
Political Career: 1970-1983
It was apparently his wife that encouraged him to join the Conservative Party in 1955 and become active in politics. He began seriously looking around for a seat in Parliament during the late 1960s, by which time he had become a succesful businessman and a self-made millionaire. His opportunity came when a by-election was called in the safe Conservative seat of Enfield West (occasioned by the unexpected death of Iain Macleod shortly after the 1970 General Election).
Duly elected to the House of Commons on the 19th November 1970 he later became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping at the Department of Trade and Industry in 1972, and was briefly an Assistant Government Whip in 1974. However despite being a member of Heath's administration it was also in 1972 that he began his association with Margaret Thatcher, and began at her request to organise the backbench opposition to Edward Heath. When the crunch finally came in 1975 and Thatcher stood against Heath in the contest for the party leadership, Parkinson was one of those who helped organise support for the apparent outsider and helped propel her to victory. Under Thatcher's leadership he remained as an Opposition Whip until 1976 when he became the Opposition Spokesman on Trade.
After the 1979 General Election, he was made a junior minister at the Department of Trade and Industry and then in September 1981, much to everyone's surprise, he was propelled to the front rank of politics as Chairman of the Conservative Party and Paymaster-General with a seat in the cabinet and in 1982 additionally became the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Parkinson was now a member of Thatcher's inner circle and during the Falklands War of 1982 served in her War Cabinet, becoming one of her closest and most trusted advisors. It seems that Thatcher was impressed by Parkinson's instinctive grasp of public relations and his confident appearances before the television camera and subsequently decided to put him in charge of the Conservative Party's 1983 election campaign.
The result of the 1983 General Election was a resounding victory for the Conservative Party with much of the credit going to Parkinson himself; his subsequent reward being a promotion to the office of Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
The Sarah Keays affair
Having now masterminded the Conservative victory on the 9th June 1983, Parkinson was even being talked of as a possible successor to Thatcher. However unbeknownst to the public at large Parkinson had been conducting a long running affair with his former House of Commons secretary Sarah Keays. The affair appears to have begun shortly after Parkinson first met Sarah Keays on the 21st June 1971 and was, for a time at least, a passionate affair with Parkinson talking of leaving his wife and marrying Keays. However it seems that by the early 1980s the romance had cooled (at least from Parkinson's side); his wife Anne fell seriously ill in 1980, about the time that his daughter Mary also developed a serious drug problem.
Matters came to a head on the 21st May 1983 when Keays informed him that she was pregnant with his child. With the General Election in the offing he kept the news to himself but following the victory, Parkinson approached Thatcher to spill the beans. Thatcher proved to be surprisingly sympathetic to his plight, and expressed her belief that they would come to some arrangement regarding the matter. However in the succeeding months it became clear that Keays and Parkinson were finding it difficult to come to any kind of mutually acceptable arrangement. The problem was that Keays apparently expected Parkinson to divorce his wife and marry her now that she was pregnant, whilst it was clear that he now had no intention of leaving his wife.
As the bickering continued between the two, Fleet Street somehow got wind of the story and on the 23rd August Sarah Keays found herself being pursued by reporters from the Daily Mirror. A week or so later on the 2nd September her father, Colonel Hastings Keays wrote to the Prime Minister warning her that "public scandal must be regarded as imminent". Soon Parkinson became of the same opinion himself and announced his resignation as Party Chairman on the 14th September, in an effort to distance the party from the scandal to come; although at the time his resignation appeared inexplicable. It was left to Private Eye to finally break the story when it revealed on the 5th October that Sara Keays was pregnant, whilst assuring its readers that Parkinson's decision to step down as Chairman had "nothing to do with his marital difficulties which have recently raised eyebrows in Tory circles". It was this report that triggered Keays's decision to telephone Parkinson and issue an ultimatum, giving him until mid-day to issue a statement.
Parkinson duly issued a statement at 11.45am on the 5th October 1983 in which he admitted an affair with Sarah Keays, confirming that she was both pregnant and that he was the father, but declined to answer any further questions. The press reaction to this statement was broadly sympathetic to his position, praising his honesty in coming forward. It was this sympathetic response that apparently annoyed Sarah Keays and convinced her that she should now "put her side of the story", although it has never been particularly clear what benefit she hoped to achieve from this exercise. Her personal statement appeared in The Times on the 14th October 1983 and rapidly led Parkinson to the conclusion that the continuing press coverage of the affair meant that he could no longer continue as a member of the government and he duly offered his resignation later that same day.
Political Career: 1987-1999
After serving four years in exile Parkinson later returned to government in 1987 as Secretary of State for Energy following which he became Secretary of State for Transport in 1989. But despite his return to the cabinet, he appeared to many to be not quite the same confident performer as he had been in the early eighties, and to no one's surprise when Margaret Thatcher made the decision to stand down as Prime Minister in November 1990, Parkinson decided that it was time for him to leave the government as well. Whilst he might have been mentioned as potential successor in 1983, his name did not feature at all in 1990. He subsequently decided to stand down from the House of Commons at the 1992 General Election, but was afterwards created a life peer as the Baron Parkinson later that same year.
Following the party's disastrous showing in the 1997 General Election in June 1997 he returned to serve under William Hague as Conservative Party Chairman, (apparently on the suggestion of Michael Portillo) in order to take charge of the programme of modernisation and reorganisation of the party organisation promised by Hague during his leadership campaign. Parkinson insisted at the time that "I am not going back into full-time politics" and he was true to his word and remained as Chairman for only a year before relinquishing the post in favour of Michael Ancram.
On the 31st December 1983 Sara Keays gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Flora. At the age of four and a half Flora Keays was diagnosed with a brain tumour and required surgery that involved removing the whole right frontal lobe of her brain. This resulted in Flora suffering some significant mental impairment which in years gone by would have been called mental disability but is now referred to as a learning difficulty. Flora was additionally later diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome which apparently means that "she feels rejection more keenly than her peers".
In March 1993 both Parkinson and Keays obtained what is commonly known as a Mary Bell order, or what the lawyers call a contra mundum injunction, which prevented anyone from publishing or communicating any information whatsoever regarding Flora. Initially Sarah Keays appears not to have appreciated that she was included within the legal definition of "anyone" and a few months later in September an in personam injunction was granted specifically restraining her from similarly discussing or communicating information about Flora. In this case the courts simply decided that it was in the best interests of the child that there be no media intrusion into her life; a principle they again applied in 1995 when they declined an application by Sarah Keays to have the injunction lifted to permit the broadcast of a film showing Flora receiving treatment at the Feuerstein Institute.
Of course all the above legal prohibitions became void at the point that Flora came of age at her eighteenth birthday on the 31st December 2001. Ten days previously on the 21st December 2001 Sara Keays had already granted the exclusive rights to her story to Associated Newspapers (publishers of the Daily Mail) in return for £100,000 and a 50% cut of the syndication rights. The Daily Mail duly ran the story on the 5th January 2002 under the headline 'THE GIRL CECIL TRIED TO HIDE', whilst the documentary Flora's Story was broadcast by Channel 4 on the 10th January 2002.
If Ms Keays expected to bathed in a warm wave sympathy from the media as a result of these revalations she was to be sorely disappointed. In particular on the 13th January 2002 The Observer ran an article by Carol Sarler which was deeply critical of Sarah Keay's motives and described her as "a well of apparently limitless bitterness". Ms Sarler also described Parkinson as "a selfish adulterer" and added that "a just world they probably deserve each other". Miss Keays sued for libel. Her case was dismissed, with the judge taking the view that since Miss Keays had volunteered to place her private life in the public domain she could hardly complain if this resulted in some unfavourable comment on her motives for so doing.
Sarah Keays has been particularly voluble on the subject of her relationship with Cecil Parkinson, whilst he has maintained silent on the subject and has added very little to his original statement of the 5th October 1983. Even Parkinson's own memoirs Right at the Centre which appeared in 1992 add very little to the public record.
Parkinson's one and only marriage was in 1957 to Ann Mary Jarvis who has borne him three daughters Mary, Emma and Joanna, whilst of course, he has a fourth daughter named Flora by his former mistress as noted above.
Cecil Parkinson was consecutively the member for Enfield West 1970-1974, Hertfordshire South 1974-1983, Hertsmere 1983-1990. Despite the change in name all three constituencies were essentially centred on Potters Bar in south Hertfordshire.
- Matthew Paris and Kevin Maguire Great Parliamentary Scandals(Revised edition, Chrysalis, 2004)
- 14 October 1983: Parkinson quits over lovechild scandal
- Robert Shrimsley, Hague brings back Parkinson to oversee party shake-up, 21 June 1997
- Sara Keays v Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003 EWHC 1565 QB
- Notable OLs