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Sunday 18 March 2018

Obituary: James Prior

Tory employment and Northern Ireland Minister regarded as a leader of the dissident 'wets' in Thatcher's Cabinet

KEEN FARMER: James Prior was Minister of Agriculture from 1970 until 1972. Photo: Hollist ANL/REX/Shutterstock
KEEN FARMER: James Prior was Minister of Agriculture from 1970 until 1972. Photo: Hollist ANL/REX/Shutterstock

James Prior, who died last Monday aged 89, was an influential but embattled figure in Margaret Thatcher's government before suffering the fate of other Cabinet "wets". He was a reluctant Northern Ireland Secretary who, despite arriving in the middle of the 1981 Republican hunger strikes and the concomitant rise in violence, applied himself vigorously to the province's problems, striving to find a new initiative to bring Protestants and Catholics together.

In Britain James Prior's ministerial career divided neatly into two: Minister of Agriculture and Leader of the House under Edward Heath, whose parliamentary private secretary he had been in opposition, and Employment Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary under Mrs Thatcher, before being dropped in 1984.

Under Heath, Prior enjoyed a favourable wind from Downing Street, but in Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet he was always under pressure. The Tory Right pressed him hard to abandon his "step by step" approach to trade union reform. Mrs Thatcher herself mortally offended Prior by declaring that "Jim is very, very sorry" for comments he had made about a steel dispute when he most certainly was not. And while he dealt courageously and positively with security and political issues in Northern Ireland, a mass escape from the Maze prison weakened his authority.

A fresh-faced and humane East Anglian farmer, Prior fought hard to retain his influence within the Cabinet, insisting when he moved to Stormont that he kept a say in economic policy. But his was increasingly a fight for survival, and he eventually made way for Douglas Hurd in September 1984, weeks before the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference.

James Michael Leathes Prior was born on October 11, 1927, the son of a Norfolk solicitor. He accompanied his father to the evictions of farmers whose businesses had collapsed during the Depression: the experience shaped his paternalistic brand of Toryism.

He was educated at Charterhouse, where he distinguished himself as a cricketer and historian, also superintending the pigs kept to offset wartime rationing.

His political career almost crashed before it had started when, in an undergraduate prank at Cambridge, he was caught stealing a hurricane lamp from scaffolding outside another college. Warned by his senior tutor that a conviction would preclude him from entering Parliament, he hired a QC and was acquitted.

He became a land agent in north Suffolk, eventually building up his own practice. In 1956 he was invited to become Conservative candidate for the Lowestoft division, despite resistance from Conservative Central Office, unimpressed by his lack of political experience. Having won the nomination he bought his own farm at Brampton, which he kept for the rest of his life.

Though most Tories had written off Lowestoft as unwinnable, Prior was returned at the 1959 election with a majority of 1,489.

He would hold the seat until he left the Commons at the 1987 election.

Prior's rural interests gave him an entree into the influential "Knights of the Shire", the paternalist, moderate group of rural Tory backbenchers. He was appointed PPS to Freddie Erroll, President of the Board of Trade, in 1961, and in this capacity first got to know Heath. He had already marked out his position on the Left of the party, proclaiming in his maiden speech in the Commons that: "I will never work or stand for any party which would support a policy of unemployment."

Prior joined Heath's Cabinet aged only 42 as Minister of Agriculture. Despite an unfortunate gaffe almost as soon as he took office - when he told a questioner Heath's "cut prices at a stroke" remark during the election should not be taken seriously - Prior looked back on his years at Agriculture as the happiest of his career.

He played a leading role in negotiating and then preparing for Britain's entry into the EEC, a policy upon which he and Heath were at one. On other issues Prior was subsequently to admit the bad judgment of Heath's Cabinet - notably on the decision to implement a statutory prices and incomes policy.

His seniority in both the party and the government enabled him to minimise the damage from the scandal in 1973 involving Lord Lambton and a call-girl, which led to both Lambton and Earl Jellicoe leaving the government. It also led to him playing a key role in the "Who governs Britain?" election of February 1974, when Heath sought a new mandate to take on the striking miners. Prior had been a leading advocate of a snap election, and felt partly responsible for the debacle that ensued.

Heath's leadership did not survive the second defeat of October 1974. Prior firmly supported him against Margaret Thatcher in the February 1975 contest, and himself intervened in the second ballot after Heath stood down.

Mrs Thatcher nevertheless gave him the shadow Employment portfolio, though, in his own words, he no longer remained on the "inside track". The post became a pivotal one as the unions grew increasingly restless under Labour, the picket-line violence at Grunwick being followed by the "Winter of Discontent" in 1978-79.

The Conservatives regained power in 1979 committed to sorting out the unions, and Mrs Thatcher entrusted Prior with the task as Employment Secretary. In opposition, he had tried to steer the party away from heavy-handed legislation, resisting pressure to commit the party to abolish the closed shop. However, the "Winter of Discontent" convinced him some legal curbs on the unions were essential.

Prior got the first of these on to the statute book with a minimum of industrial friction because of his excellent personal relations with union leaders, but his cautious and conciliatory approach raised suspicions on the Right and led to him being branded "Pussyfoot Prior".

His 1980 Employment Act provided for public funding for union ballots, limited picketing, tinkered with the principle of the closed shop and legislated against union recruitment by coercion. He began to draft a green paper on union immunities, but in September 1981 was moved to Northern Ireland.

Prior's other main challenges at Employment were major disputes in the car industry - notably at British Leyland - and the 1980 steel strike.

Prior found himself in the embarrassing predicament of presiding over a doubling in unemployment to three million, and as he stepped up his generally private criticism of Mrs Thatcher's monetarist policies it became inevitable that she would move him, if not eject him from her Cabinet.

He remained throughout the first Thatcher government too dangerous a figure to be allowed to speak his mind on the backbenches, so held his place despite the growing antipathy between himself and the prime minister. His belief in the need for a public sector pay policy, which she firmly rejected, was a major cause of antagonism.

Prior took Northern Ireland reluctantly, but was still hopeful of hanging on long enough to see the Conservative Party turn away from monetarism. He applied himself vigorously to the province's problems and, striving to find a new initiative to bring Protestants and Catholics together.

He arrived in the middle of the Republican hunger strikes of 1981, and the concomitant upsurge in violence. He established a good rapport with the Irish Taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald, thus incurring the suspicions of the North's Protestant majority.

The assassination of the Unionist MP Robert Bradford soon after his arrival resulted in the first Loyalist "Day of Action" aimed at making Northern Ireland "ungovernable". The hostility shook Prior, but not his resolve to find a solution to the Troubles.

His initiative came early in 1982, with the White Paper proposing a Northern Ireland Assembly. Prior had wanted to include an "Irish dimension" in the proposals, affording Nationalists the sort of guarantee of their rights that came three years later in the Anglo-Irish agreement. But at this stage such an idea was anathema to Mrs Thatcher, and the proposal was heavily diluted. This led to a less enthusiastic response from the Republic and the mainly Catholic SDLP than Prior had hoped for, and the nationalist boycott of the Assembly led to its demise in 1985.

Prior also attempted to address Ulster's economic problems. The province suffered the highest unemployment in the United Kingdom and he did what he could to attract investment. But he also had to preside over the winding-up of the ill-fated DeLorean car venture.

He did succeed in introducing the Youth Training Scheme into Northern Ireland a year before the rest of the UK, and he encouraged the renewal of housing stock. Prior fought especially hard, and successfully, to keep open Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyard.

In September 1983 the mass break-out from the Maze brought calls from all sides for Prior's resignation. He did, in fact, offer it to the Prime Minister, but she refused it. Exactly a year later, following an offer from Lord Weinstock to become chairman of GEC, Prior left the Cabinet, though Mrs Thatcher did offer to find him another post.

He was created a life peer on leaving the Commons in 1987, remaining chairman of GEC until 1998. He chaired several other companies including the department store Allders, and sat on numerous boards including Barclays Bank, Sainsbury's and United Biscuits. Prior also found the time, out of government, to write his entertaining memoirs, A Balance of Power (1986). He continued to farm and, although he remained closely identified with the Left of his party, he was personally popular among politicians of all shades.

He married Jane Lywood in 1954; they had a daughter and three sons.

© Telegraph

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