Parkinson Lobby

Alan Rusbridger

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.’

The Telegraph thought that ‘the public mood in respect of Mr Parkinson will be moved more towards sympathy than censoriousness,’ and saw ‘no moral reasons to justify resignation’. It added: ‘Her decision would presumably be altered only if the scale of the embarrassment greatly increased. That may yet happen. If it does, then Mr Parkinson will have been sacrificed less to morality than to appearances.’ The Sun backed Mrs Thatcher; the Express offered no comment. The Guardian said there should be no question of Mr Parkinson resigning, while cautioning politicians in future against ritually trying on ‘a set of personal values which, as ordinary human beings, they have scant chance of upholding’. The Times was at its most confused, wishing Mr Parkinson had kept quiet, announcing that, because he had not done so, it was legitimate to pass judgment on his behaviour as a whole, and then not doing so. A third of its front-page story on 7 October was devoted to the alleged security implications of the affair. The same day’s editorial dismissed this as cant and ‘an excuse for prurience’. The paper’s eventual decision was that Mr Parkinson had made a ‘sad and silly blunder’.

It is difficult to detect much hypocrisy amongst all that lot. Nor, by and large, did the papers change their lines on Mr Parkinson’s behaviour once Miss Keays had published her version, which showed it in a less than flattering light. The Sun, alone out of Fleet Street dailies, took the view that his private vacillations cast serious doubt on his political ability: ‘The picture that emerges’ from Miss Keays’s statement is

devastating to Mr Parkinson’s reputation. He emerges as, at worst, a devious man who strung along his mistress to protect himself and his career from the consequences of his infidelity; and, at best, a tortured, dithering man who could not make up his mind what he wanted. Whatever complexion we put on his behaviour the judgment remains the same. Cecil Parkinson could no longer inspire the respect, confidence and trust that must repose in a holder of high public office.

But it might be asked: what could be more hypocritical than publicly professing the matter to be a private one, while despatching large numbers of gaberdined and sheep-skinned reporters to stand on various doorsteps around the clock? The Telegraph, supreme, as ever, in these matters, ran 11 stories the first day by seven reporters who managed to swamp the few meagre inches of pious editorial. Writing in the Guardian three days after the story broke, Peter Jenkins talked of ‘the practical question of what should be done about the Fleet Street heavy mob bivouacking in Hertfordshire and Wiltshire, the Prime Minister pursued wherever she goes not by lobby correspondents but by crime reporters’. That, indeed, was the visual image conveyed by television each night of how the press set about and sustained the story. Never an attractive sight, the pack, and Miss Keays’s neighbours in Marksbury showed their feelings by discreetly vandalising a good number of the reporters’ cars which were clogging up the country lanes. But the visual image is misleading. The daily progress of the story did not have much to do with the hours put in by the watching hordes – ‘milkbottles’, in the trade.

The genesis of the story is significant. It came about, not through diligent investigation or snooping on the part of Private Eye, but on a plate: that is, in a neatly-typed letter setting out all the pertinent facts. The Daily Mirror, it is true, had been nosing around the story some seven weeks earlier, but had retired with little more than a few photographs and a dented car to show for it. The Keays family wouldn’t talk. Then there’s the question of how much we actually know about Sara Keays in the wake of the huge and costly inquiries of the heavy mob. That she lives in a cottage named Fir Tree Cottage; that she is 36; that she once worked for Roy Jenkins; that she once fought a Southwark Council by-election; that she wanted to fight Bermondsey; that she enjoys karate; that she once appeared on Channel 4; that she once enjoyed hay rides in the back of her ‘Uncle’ John’s hay cart; that she has a brother called Thomas and another called William and a twin sister called Elizabeth; that her mother recently died of cancer; that her father is called Hastings and is a retired colonel. That is about it. This might serve as a modest sketch of someone’s life, but is wholly lacking in the richness of detail one can expect to emerge when Fleet Street really puts its mind to it and when the protagonists – or, failing them, their friends, neighbours and relations – are willing to play along. What is striking about the so-called Parkinson Affair is that the protagonists and their friends were willing to play along, but strictly on their own terms – through that most discreet of bodies, the political Lobby at Westminster.

The Lobby is a small, secretive, rigidly-controlled club to which most, if not all political correspondents and reporters belong. The arguments for and against its existence have been well-rehearsed. It affords journalists cosy access to politicians; it affords politicians cosy access to journalists, in the safe knowledge that, without specific agreement to the contrary, nothing they say will ever be attributed to them or be presented in a way that could possibly identify them as the source. Not unnaturally, the subject is usually politics. But the Parkinson Affair showed that the Lobby was prepared to take a flexible view of the uses to which the system may be put.

Virtually all the main stories during the ten-day life-cycle of the story were written by political correspondents. Their unnamed sources swung into action on day one, with assements of Mr Parkinson’s political future and of the damage, if any, to his party or to Mrs Thatcher’s standing. ‘Senior sources say ...’ ‘Conservative backbenchers believe ...’ ‘Senior Tory MPs confirmed ...’ ‘Cabinet colleagues made it clear ... ’. By the first Sunday these anonymous, but undoubtedly senior figures were, as the saying goes, singing like canaries. The Sunday Times’s lead story (‘Top Tories tell PM to sack Parkinson’) quoted six unnamed Tory MPs, ranging from ‘A Tory Privy Councillor’ to ‘An MP from the Tory Right’, all united in criticism both of Mr Parkinson’s morals and of Mrs Thatcher’s response on learning of his lapse.

No Tory, apparently, could be found to balance out these views, which went roughly as follows: ‘He’s let the party down ... If his private life becomes public he must take the consequences. I can’t possibly see how he can hold his head up. How can we give a standing ovation to an admitted adulterer? People in the constituency say he should resign, because he broke a promise. Why didn’t he get divorced and do the decent thing? People are very upset. They say it’s all very well for the rich to talk about a love-child, but it’s not the same for ordinary people. He should resign. In his statement, he said he promised to marry the girl and changed his mind. We talk about Victorian values and now this.’

A story the same day by the Mail on Sunday’s political editor, Peter Simmonds, was even more noteworthy. It stated baldly that Mr Parkinson had ‘a fervent wish to retire from public life’, but was restrained by Mrs Thatcher’s insistence that he stay on to address the Party Conference. The story was unusual in that there was no attempt to source ‘friends’ or ‘colleagues’ until the fourth paragraph. Nor was there any clue that Mr Parkinson himself had spent some forty minutes the previous day talking to Mr Simmonds on the telephone. This is, in itself, odd, for Mr Parkinson throughout the ten days made much of the fact that he was sticking by his agreement with Miss Keays that neither of them should add anything to their joint statement. Perhaps it was not Mr Parkinson who suggested to Mr Simmonds that he might be thinking of quitting. We shall probably never know. That is the beauty of the Lobby system. Perhaps it was not Mr Parkinson himself but ‘his friends’ who supplied the telling detail that made the Mail on Sunday’s three-page background article inside so very meaty, and, it must be said, so very sympathetic to Mr Parkinson. According to this version, the chief factor in persuading Mr Parkinson to stay with his wife was the terrible fear that his eldest daughter, Mary, might be forced back onto the heroin she had just managed to live without – thanks, in no small part, to the long hours Mr Parkinson had spent with her: ‘Parkinson knew that it was the love of a father which she really needed to help her through the dog days ... Despite onerous political duties and the turmoil of his love life he had spent hours with her in the long uphill struggle of heroin withdrawal ... His life was now swept into a vortex of confusion.’ Whoever the source, it was clearly someone with intimate access to, and knowledge of, Cecil Parkinson.

The Mail on Sunday, which was meanwhile conducting negotiations with Miss Keays (£50,000 was on offer) for her side of the story, also came up (via ‘Party sources’ and ‘his friends’) with the Clapometer theory of Mr Parkinson’s immediate chance of surviving: if the Tory faithful gave him a big enough hand for his Thursday speech he was home and dry. The same line cropped up several times that Sunday, only to be countermanded in the Tory press just before Mr Parkinson’s speech by the same – or was it different? – party sources, voicing fears that too enthusiastic a standing ovation might be misinterpreted. Decoded: they had got wind of the fact that Miss Keays had something up her sleeve and were desperate for the public rehabilitation of Mr Parkinson to be, well, tasteful. Best not annoy the girl.

The Battle of the Sources became ever more frenzied as the week rolled on. Mr Parkinson’s friends were in fearsome form in the Mail on the following Monday: ‘Mr Parkinson’s friends are infuriated that the reports of criticism are coming from Tory supporters who are not prepared to be named,’ the paper’s political editor, Mr Gordon Greig, reported without conscious irony. ‘They believe that a whispering campaign is being inspired by his rivals ... Mr Parkinson’s friends are also continuing to ask how a 36-year-old woman in this day and age should become pregnant if she did not want to be.’ The Times, out of all Fleet Street, was the paper most insistent that the story should stay on the front page, preferably in the lead slot, with claims that the affair cost Mr Parkinson the post of Foreign Secretary and the hint that it had cost Miss Keays the candidature at Bermondsey. The Times also quoted Sir Russell Sanderson, Chairman of the Conservatives’ National Union Executive Committee, as he sought to place much of the blame on the media: ‘Some people, particularly some sections of the press, seem to think that because Mr Parkinson has fallen on hard times, and he has, we should all denigrate what has happened and throw him over. It is not the way we do it in this party. I am sorry, but it is not.’ The Conservative Party obviously does it in a more subtle fashion: Simon Hoggart, in the following Sunday’s Observer, disclosed Mr Parkinson’s anger at Sir Russell’s remarks, for, ‘in private, he was telling him firmly that he ought to go.’ Mr Hoggart also disclosed that Mr Parkinson suspected Norman Tebbit of leaking to the Times the story that Mrs Thatcher would have made him Foreign Secretary. Clearly, Guess the Source is something of a party game in such circles.

It was an unusually difficult game for anyone to play on the Sunday after Miss Keays’s statement appeared – stretched across seven columns of the Times. The Observer, quoting a superior breed of source, ‘close friends of Mr Parkinson’, assured readers that he wished to give up politics altogether. ‘One close Cabinet colleague said: “This woman failed in destroying his marriage, but she succeeded in ruining his political career.” ’ The report contrasted with later editions of the Sunday Times, which insisted Mr Parkinson had no intention of leaving politics. But the real contrast was between the first edition of the Sunday Times and the last: that is, before its new editor had a private telephone conversation with Mr Parkinson and after.

The first-edition story, bylined Michael Jones, Political Editor, had extensive and detailed contradictions of Miss Keays’s version of events by the travelling troupe of Mr Parkinson’s friends, plus the odd insult, and the statement that Mr Parkinson had kept to his side of the agreement not to discuss the affair. Andrew Neil, the new editor, then had his conversation with Mr Parkinson, during which Rupert Murdoch, his proprietor, sat in a corner of the office drawing up the headlines that could run over the story in the sister paper, the News of the World. Neil’s rewritten version of the story was then given to sub-editors to prepare for the later editions. There were one or two significant differences in the second version, which appeared without Mr Jones’s byline, but with an ‘Exclusive’ tag. Amongst them was the repetition of the story – first told in the Mail on Sunday the previous week – that Mr Parkinson backed out of the marriage with Miss Keays ‘because one of his daughters was taking heroin and he feared that a divorce and public family break-up would set back her treatment.’ But what disturbed several members of Mr Neil’s staff most was that, aware of the changes made in the story after the telephone conversation took place, they were then asked to include a disclaiming quote from Mr Parkinson himself, in which he said: ‘Any friend who has the interests of me and my family at heart should refrain from any further comment.’ He repeated the plea in the course of the day as he stepped out for the television cameras, hand in hand with his wife and daughters.

Miss Keays, of course, had not in the meantime kept silent and had not been above allowing her solicitor to tip the wink to photographers early on, when it seemed the matter might slip into decent oblivion. But she had to play by a different set of rules. It was no use her ringing up a journalist with a quiet ‘Psssst. We never spoke, right? But, strictly unattributably, I’d like you to print the following ... ’ Nor could she draw on a chorus of friends with similar facilities for discreet public announcements. So she typed a statement, put her name to it, and rang up the Times, which gratefully printed it. ‘We were in the right place at the right time,’ a senior executive crowed to UK Press Gazette when it was all over – which was not for a while, since the Times yet again led the paper with another tired angle on the affair the following Monday. ‘Gutter journalism,’ fumed three letters later in the week. By then, they had a point.

There had been general agreement throughout that it was a tragedy. ‘It is a tragedy,’ Norman Tebbit elaborated, ‘when what I regard predominantly as pygmies can bring down a man like Cecil Parkinson.’ ‘Pygmies’ was generally taken to refer to the press, as in Bruce-Gardyne’s ‘hounded out by a press campaign’. But this implies a curious view of the relations between press and politics, and of a week in which newspapers connived with a small band of politicians – who may or may not have been pygmies compared with Cecil Parkinson, and who were to remain anonymous while systematically breathing new life into the story of the Parkinson troubles. At the end the press did question Mrs Thatcher’s judgment: but neither she nor the newspaper editors could have predicted the eagerness with which some of Mr Parkinson’s Parliamentary colleagues, for whatever reasons, would keep the story going.

All journalists recognise that there are occasions – which happen most days – when, for a variety of reasons, sources must insist on anonymity. In many cases, information thus given would not otherwise become public. The Lobby system, though, makes this the rule and not the exception. In the Parkinson affair the anonymity of the Lobby was used to the hilt, not to give political information or to express political opinion, but to comment on Mr Parkinson’s behaviour, to leak details of his relationships, or simply to blacken Miss Keays’a name. Here were people voicing in private views they would not choose, or dare, to voice in public. Here we have a case – if not a system – of hypocrisy.