When British Trade and Industrial Secretary Cecil Parkinson admitted his eight-year affair with a former secretary, Sara Keays, and her pregnancy, his chances of surviving the resulting storm seemed strong. Keays, 36, is expecting the suave former Conservative Party chairman’s baby in January. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom Parkinson informed of his predicament on election night last June, for one, firmly indicated her support. Then, last week, after nine days of mounting controversy and new revelations about Parkinson’s affair, Thatcher issued a 2 a.m. summons to her 52-year-old minister. In a sober interview in her suite at Blackpool’s Imperial Hotel during the party’s convention, Thatcher told Parkinson she could no longer protect him. Hours later a one-sentence statement from No. 10 Downing St., Thatcher’s official residence, said that Parkinson had resigned.
For Parkinson, the decision was a bitter setback. As a Thatcher protégé, pundits had confidently tipped him as a possible future Tory leader. For the Conservatives, the resignation came as
a climax to a week of setbacks. They had intended the party’s 100th convention to be the grand finale to a triumphant year. But the Parkinson scandal was only one of a number of issues that spoiled the festivities. Backbench discontent over Thatcher’s inflexible leadership style and hard-line policies, given new impetus by her strident rhetoric during her recent Canadian visit, bubbled heatedly behind the scenes. Then an opinion poll revealed that Labour, freshly regrouped behind its new leader, 41-year-old Neil Kinnock, had narrowed the Tories once-impregnable lead to a mere three per cent. Finally, an explosive internal Tory report revealed that right-wing and racist pressure groups had deeply infiltrated the party. Said John Smith, Labour opposition energy critic: “It’s as though a truckload of banana skins had just backed up to No. 10.”
Still, it was the Parkinson scandal that held centre stage. A mounting chorus from party stalwarts and leading public figures criticized Parkinson’s decision to stay in office. One Tory MP called him “a self-confessed adulterer and a damned fool.” The Bishop of Bath
and Wells, John Bickersteth, in whose diocese Keays lives, delivered a stinging judgment. A man irresponsible in personal matters could not be trusted in larger ones, he said. “The honorable thing would have been to resign.” The final straw was an interview Keays gave to The Times of London. She said Parkinson had proposed marriage, then changed his mind last May when he found she was expecting his baby. He again proposed marriage on election day and she had once more accepted. But after a vacation with his wife and family in August he again backed out.
In the end, it was a week for stiff upper lips and tight smiles. Thatcher set the tone in a defiant keynote speech which contained a single glowing reference to Parkinson, by then back in his Hertfordshire home besieged by reporters. “We do not forget,” Thatcher told applauding delegates, “the man who so brilliantly organized the [election] campaign.” But Britain’s Conservatives will not forget either their accident-prone week in Blackpool. Indeed for Thatcher, the future is less promising than it has been for a long time. And as opposition to her policies strengthens, both within her party and in the country, her own future looks less assured than her 144-seat overall majority in Parliament would suggest.
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