British Cabinet Secretary Parkinson Resigns After His Secretary Becomes Pregnant Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Cecil Parkinson was secretary of state for trade and industry in the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was revealed that his former secretary, Sara Keays, was pregnant, and he was the father. Parkinson met with public disapproval for his lack of contact with his child in the years after her birth.

Summary of Event

Cecil Parkinson was a high-flying member of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government from its election in 1979 until the revelation of his affair with his former parliamentary secretary, Sara Keays, in 1983. He resigned his cabinet post on October 14. After four years in relative obscurity in Parliament, he was again promoted to cabinet rank by Thatcher. When she resigned as party leader in 1990, Parkinson resigned with her, bringing an end to his political career. [kw]Parkinson Resigns After His Secretary Becomes Pregnant, British Cabinet Secretary (Oct. 14, 1983) Parkinson, Cecil Thatcher, Margaret [p]Thatcher, Margaret;and Cecil Parkinson[Parkinson] Keays, Sara Parkinson, Cecil Thatcher, Margaret [p]Thatcher, Margaret;and Cecil Parkinson[Parkinson] Keays, Sara [g]Europe;Oct. 14, 1983: British Cabinet Secretary Parkinson Resigns After His Secretary Becomes Pregnant[02080] [g]England;Oct. 14, 1983: British Cabinet Secretary Parkinson Resigns After His Secretary Becomes Pregnant[02080] [c]Politics;Oct. 14, 1983: British Cabinet Secretary Parkinson Resigns After His Secretary Becomes Pregnant[02080] [c]Sex;Oct. 14, 1983: British Cabinet Secretary Parkinson Resigns After His Secretary Becomes Pregnant[02080] [c]Government;Oct. 14, 1983: British Cabinet Secretary Parkinson Resigns After His Secretary Becomes Pregnant[02080] [c]Public morals;Oct. 14, 1983: British Cabinet Secretary Parkinson Resigns After His Secretary Becomes Pregnant[02080] [c]Families and children;Oct. 14, 1983: British Cabinet Secretary Parkinson Resigns After His Secretary Becomes Pregnant[02080] [c]Women’s issues;Oct. 14, 1983: British Cabinet Secretary Parkinson Resigns After His Secretary Becomes Pregnant[02080]

Parkinson came from humble origins, being the son of a railway worker in Carnforth, Lancashire. In 1942, the young Parkinson won a scholarship to nearby Lancaster Grammar School, a prestigious high school for academically gifted boys. He did well academically and at track and field events. At one point he was thinking of being ordained into the Church of England, and he was offered a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, to read theology. He accepted the offer but then changed his mind and started to read English instead. He majored in law.

After graduation in 1955, Parkinson found employment as a trainee graduate with the Metal Box Company in London. While studying accountancy there he met Ann Jarvis, whom he married in 1957. They had three daughters, the first born in 1959. Politically, Parkinson had been brought up as a Labour Party supporter, a loyalty he maintained throughout his student years. However, after a period of political neutrality, he joined the Conservative Party in 1959 and was soon active as a public speaker.

In 1961, Parkinson began his own business, then bought up a number of small failing engineering firms between 1967 and 1979 to form a small business empire worth several million pounds. He was asked to stand in the 1970 general election for Northampton, but was unsuccessful. At a by-election in north London few months later, he was elected. He was then reelected for a slightly different constituency in Hertfordshire in 1974, and then again in 1979, the year that Thatcher became the new prime minister. Thatcher had led the Conservatives to power over Labour.

Keays, the daughter of an army colonel, became Parkinson’s parliamentary secretary in 1971. They soon were lovers. Over the next few years, Parkinson promised Keays Marriage;Cecil Parkinson[Parkinson] marriage on at least two occasions, and she claimed later to have continued the affair with the expectation of eventually marrying him. She left her job as his secretary in 1979, moved for a year to Brussels, Belgium, then returned to Westminster to take a job as secretary to another member of Parliament. The affair with Parkinson continued uninterrupted, however.

Meanwhile, Parkinson had attracted the favor of Thatcher and was being promoted within the government ranks. In 1981, he was made party chairman and was then included in the cabinet in 1982 as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. At the 1983 election, held in the summer, Thatcher was again very successful. She wanted to promote Parkinson to one of the top cabinet jobs, but Keays had already told Parkinson that she was pregnant. She later denied allegations that she allowed the pregnancy to go forward to force Parkinson to marry her.

Parkinson had to tell Thatcher what he believed was bad news. She decided to offer him a lower-level post in the cabinet and pressured him to break off the affair. In June, he became the secretary of state for trade and industry, a new department formed out of two previous departments. In the meantime, Parkinson told his wife of the affair and pregnancy. She and his two older daughters decided the marriage should continue and promised to support Parkinson.

On October 5, attorneys for Parkinson and Keays met and issued a statement in which Parkinson admitted the affair, his desire to marry her, his subsequent decision not to, and an expression of regret at the pain he had caused. The attorneys also announced that no questions would be answered from the press. However, one week later, Keays issued her own statement. She claimed the previous statement by her attorney had not been full enough and that she had been placed in an impossible situation.

A tremendous furor emerged in the press. At the time the scandal erupted, the annual Conservative Party conference was being held. Parkinson attended only to make a speech, which was greeted with great enthusiasm. However, it became obvious that a planned trip to the United States by Parkinson to promote British interests would be seriously compromised, and he offered his resignation to Thatcher. She had defended him all the while but accepted his resignation on October 14. Although he remained a backbench member of Parliament, he claimed that he still received thousands of letters of support.

Impact

Parkinson’s resignation was the fourth one from a Thatcher cabinet, but it did little harm to her government. Norman Tebbit, a hard-hitting politician, took over Parkinson’s job as secretary of state for trade and industry. At a personal level, Parkinson’s political career was on hold, and he became a regular object of satire as Thatcher’s government gradually lost its popularity. However, after four years on the backbenches, he reemerged into front line politics, being appointed secretary of state for energy in 1987. He retained his popularity in the Conservative Party throughout the period.

Parkinson also made sure that a far-reaching gag order was issued against the press to protect his daughter, Flora, who was born to Keays in December, 1983. Flora had been born with some birth disorders and suffered from epilepsy and mental disabilities. The gag order was so strict that even school photographs of Flora were prohibited, and the order was in place until she was eighteen years old.

After their daughter’s birth, Keays appeared at party conferences, apparently to embarrass Parkinson. She also wrote the book Question of Judgement (1985) to reveal her side of the affair. Her novel, The Black Book, a thinly disguised account of government corruption, followed in 1987.

The long-term repercussions of the Parkinson-Keays affair did not emerge until the media gag order was lifted in 2001. By this time, Parkinson had left active politics and been made a peer (Lord Parkinson of Carnforth). The affair became a press sensation once more, but this time the media was considerably more sympathetic to Keays. Keays claimed that in those eighteen years in which the gag order was in place, Parkinson never visited his daughter nor did he ever send a birthday card. However, he had made arrangements to pay for her living expenses and education. Keays sued one newspaper for libel, Libel cases;and Sara Keays[Keays] but lost the case and incurred heavy legal costs. She also sold her story several times. Flora appeared on national television in January, 2002, saying she would like to meet her father. Parkinson, Cecil Thatcher, Margaret [p]Thatcher, Margaret;and Cecil Parkinson[Parkinson] Keays, Sara

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Alan. Diaries: In Power. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2003. Clark’s diaries recount the Thatcher and Major years of government and give intimate details into the affairs and indiscretions of a number of ministers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keays, Sara. Question of Judgement. London: Quintessential Press, 1985. Sara Keays’s version of her affair with Parkinson and its subsequent development. A considerably more robust account than that of Parkinson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parkinson, Cecil. Right at the Centre: An Autobiography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1992. Parkinson’s autobiography, which covers his life through his retirement from active politics in 1990. Contains remarkably little discussion of the affair with Keays but explores his attempt to keep it a secret.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Street Years. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Thatcher’s account of her years as British prime minister and her dealings with one of her favorites, Parkinson.

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