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26 January 2016

The forgotten Cecil Parkinson

Lord Parkinson will be largely remembered for his affair. But his organisational contribution to the Conservative Party is his biggest legacy.

By Tim Bale

When most people who were around in the 1980s think of Cecil Parkinson, they will recall only one thing – his affair with Sara Keays and his subsequent resignation.  But he actually deserves to be remembered for far more than that.  Indeed, few Tories have contributed as much to their party’s success.

Cecil Parkinson was one of a number of ‘grammar school boys’ promoted by Margaret Thatcher.  He stood out from people like Norman Tebbit, Norman Fowler and Ken Clarke, however, because of his considerable (but entirely self-made) personal wealth and his silky-smooth people skills – all of which, along with the fact that he was very much on Margaret Thatcher’s ideological wavelength, made him perhaps the best Tory Party Chairman there has ever been.

When he first got the job in 1981, Parkinson wasn’t exactly a household name, even among Conservatives. He later rather disarmingly confessed that, although he knew Central Office (the Tories official Headquarters) was located in Westminster’s Smith Square, he was unsure as to exactly where it stood, while the people sent out to welcome him let him walk right past as he was looking for the building because, since he hadn’t been a senior minister, they didn’t know what he looked like.

The job of Chairman – at least back then – was a huge one.  In addition to overseeing Central Office, running campaigns, helping to raise money, and generally geeing up the troops, the Chairman was (or at least became under Parkinson) one of the most important public faces of the party – a figure called on by the media to explain and defend the government’s actions and standing, often where colleagues would and could not.  This put an increased premium on communication rather than executive, organisational skills. Parkinson was one of only a handful of Tory Chairman throughout the Party’s long history who genuinely possessed both in equal measure – one reason why, as well as being one of only three MPs apart from the PM to appear in the Party’s 1983 TV broadcasts, he was able to persuade Mrs Thatcher just before polling day that year not to go ahead with a million-pound, last-minute advertising splurge to win an election that he was confident was already won, and won easily.

Parkinson, who had a background in commerce and chartered accountancy, helped during his time as Chairman to corral Central Office staffers into properly planning and budgeting for the human and other resources needed to fight a general election – a move typical of the business acumen he brought to the job. He also halted the incipient decline in the party’s field operations – what would now be called its ground game. And, back at HQ, he was an early pioneer of IT in politics and also set up its first real Marketing Department. That said, getting constituency associations to fully share their sometimes considerable financial assets with the party in London proved beyond even Parkinson’s considerable talents.

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Those talents were later put to good use at the Departments of Energy and Transport – where, regardless of what one thinks of privatisation, he was an effective operator – although after the revelation of his affair with Sara Keays, it has to be said that it was never quite ‘glad confident morning’ again for one of Thatcher’s favourite sons.

Still, Parkinson enjoyed something of a swansong in the autumn of his political career. When William Hague became leader in 1997 and needed someone who could keep both grassroots and the grandees onside while he drove through crucial changes to the Party’s organisation, it was almost inevitable that he would turn to Cecil Parkinson – by that time very much a grandee himself.  Parkinson, who had by then been elevated to the Lords, possessed both the credibility and the emotional intelligence required to get buy-in to reforms that many Tories resented and might otherwise have resisted. Those reforms didn’t, of course, help the Conservatives return to the glory days of the eighties, but they at least gave the Party something to build on once it got itself a credible leader – David Cameron – in 2005.

Lord Parkinson, then, will doubtless be remembered most for the wrong reasons.  But he deserves to be remembered, at least by Conservatives, as one of most loyal and talented servants of a party whose history – and election-winning success – stretches back over two hundred long years.

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