James Michael Leathers Prior


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(b. Norfolk, 11 Oct. 1927)

British; Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1981–4; Baron (life peer) 1987 Educated at Charterhouse and Pembroke College, Cambridge, Prior served as a farmer and land agent in Norfolk and Suffolk before entering politics. Elected as Conservative MP for Lowestoft in 1959, he served briefly as a parliamentary private secretary in the last year of the Conservative government (1963–4). His first significant appointment came in 1965 when the newly elected party leader, Edward Heath, selected him as his PPS. He served as Heath's PPS throughout the period of Opposition and in 1970—despite having no previous front bench experience—was rewarded with Cabinet office, being made Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food. Two years later he was made Lord President of the Council and leader of the House of Commons and served until the end of the parliament. Heath in 1972 also appointed him as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.

After Heath resigned the party leadership in 1975, following the result of the first ballot for the leadership, Prior contested the second ballot. He received a modest nineteen votes, coming third equal out of five candidates. Though prominently associated with Heath's leadership, he was nonetheless kept on the front bench as employment spokesman by the new leader Margaret Thatcher. In 1979 she appointed him as Employment Secretary and later Northern Ireland Secretary (1981–4). Though kept in the Cabinet, his relationship with the Prime Minister was not always an easy one. She believed that his proposals for trade union reform were not sufficiently radical and she privately encouraged Conservative opponents of the legislation in the House of Lords to amend it. In 1981 she moved him from the post. He made public his reluctance to move but, after consultation with some of his supporters, he decided to accept the post of Northern Ireland Secretary. His public hand wringing, and failed attempt to pressure the Prime Minister to keep him in his present post, damaged his political credibility. As Northern Ireland Secretary, he was responsible for the policy of ‘rolling devolution’, but opposition in the province from the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Fein prevented it from being achieved. In 1984, he decided to give up ministerial office to pursue a business career. He accepted the chairmanship of the General Electric Company as well as becoming non-executive director of two other companies. He left the House of Commons at the end of the parliament in 1987 and accepted a life peerage.

One of the most prominent ‘Wets’ in Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, he argued his case but was frequently outmanœuvred by a determined Prime Minister. He was viewed as a decent man in politics, but one not destined for the highest offices—and certainly not a key economic ministry—during the Thatcher premiership.

Subjects: Politics.

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