Until supper time on Thursday, 14 October, when Miss Sara Keays lifted her telephone to summon the Times to her drawing-room, a mere four people in public life had openly censured Mr Cecil Parkinson and suggested he should resign: two Tory MPs, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and the Mayor of Potters Bar. Ranged against this lone and motley quartet were the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, most of Fleet Street, 70 Tory MPs, 62 per cent of the British public, Bernard Levin, 90 per cent of telephone callers to Conservative Central Office and a briefcase full of letters from Mr Parkinson’s constituents. Forty-two bishops stayed silent.
The overwhelming consensus during, and after, the ten-day life-span of Mr Parkinson’s public downfall had seemed to be that this was not a matter of moral concern – not in this day and age. The names of Lawson, Brittan, Hurd, Fowler, Chalker and Ridley were produced – all divorced. Palmerston, Asquith and Lloyd George were cited as testimony to the morality of previous days and ages. Many were the cautions against hypocrisy.
Mr Parkinson finally resigned on the morning of Friday, 15 October, at more or less the hour that copies of the last edition of the Times, complete with Miss Keays’s statement, went on sale in Blackpool. The overwhelming consensus now was that Mr Parkinson was right to resign. Various factors were blamed. Miss Keays’s wish for vengeance seemed to share, with the press, the major responsibility for Mr Parkinson’s downfall. Then came hypocrisy. Then there was the idea that the whole thing plainly wouldn’t go away and was becoming an embarrassment. Runner-up – hubris: ‘The Greeks have a word for it,’ we were repeatedly told. Jock (now Lord) Bruce-Gardyne, former Economic Secretary to the Treasury, managed to combine at least two of these factors in an article in the Times, ‘Hounded out by Hypocrisy’, the day after Mr Parkinson’s resignation. ‘So that great British tradition, hypocrisy, has claimed another victim,’ he began, before launching into a version of the ‘they’re all at it’ school of argument – another favourite at the time: let a minister be ‘exposed in a marital entanglement which, whether we like it or no, is happening every day in every walk of life (and certainly not least in politics) and he is hounded out of office, his career and future wrecked’. ‘I believe Mrs Thatcher was right to insist that Parkinson’s personal difficulty – for which he had already paid a heavy price – was no reason for him not to continue to make a valuable contribution to the performance of the Government and that the press was absolutely wrong. But the press has won, more’s the pity.’ And he closed his sermon on the career of Cecil Parkinson: ‘We ought to pause and ask ourselves what chance we have of attracting and holding men and women of the calibre we need in government if we allow them to be hounded out by such a press campaign and innuendo.’ The article represented an ultimate in the separation of public and private life, with the latter reduced to an anodyne formula, ‘Parkinson’s personal difficulty’, and left at that.
Is it right to say that he was ‘hounded out’ of office by ‘a press campaign and innuendo’? Did the press indeed ‘win’? From the start, it seemed to be accepted by the general public, by politicians and by the media themselves that the media would have a critical, if not crucial role in determining whether or not Mr Parkinson would be able to stay on as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. If the coverage died down, he would be all right: if it ‘refused to go away’, he would have to go. If the press could dictate the affair’s staying power, it would be up to the press whether he stayed or went.
Also from the start, however, the national press was almost completely at one in supporting Mrs Thatcher’s unwillingness to accept Mr Parkinson’s offer of resignation and in advancing the Bruce-Gardyne distinction between private and public life. Furthermore, editors and columnists up and down Fleet Street, Bouverie Street and Gray’s Inn Road bent over backwards, forwards and sideways to avoid moral judgment even on the purely personal aspect of the matter. The Daily Mail, that strong supporter of the idealisation of family life propounded by Mrs Thatcher’s court thinkers, talked of Mr Parkinson’s ‘private folly’: but it is ‘all too easy to be censorious and to apportion blame’, it sympathised, and blamed ‘bizarre working hours, the long absences from home, the aphrodisiac of power’ for dilemmas of this sort. Paul Johnson, in the same issue, was uncharacteristically backward in dishing out his unfashionable medicine: ‘Cecil Parkinson may have broken one of the Ten Commandments. He has also been foolish. But there has been nothing vicious in his behaviour. He has been involved in a human drama, now a human tragedy, almost banal in its ordinariness.’