Lord Prior PC (1927-2016)

by Sally March

James Michael Leathes (Jim) Prior (1948), cabinet minister in the Conservative Party administrations of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, has died at the age of 89.

Lord Prior came up to Pembroke in 1948 to read Agriculture after completing his National Service in the Royal Norfolk Regiment. At the end of his first year he switched to Land Economy. Upon graduating he became a land agent and farmer.

In 1959 Prior was elected as MP for Lowestoft, Suffolk, which he held until 1983, when the seat was abolished. He subsequently won the successor constituency of Waveney, which he held until 1987.

Prior was close to Edward Heath and served as his Personal Private Secretary (PPS) while Heath was Opposition Leader between 1965 and 1970. After Heath beat Harold Wilson in the 1970 election, Prior was appointed as Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, which he later regarded as the happiest period of his career as a politician, and subsequently Leader of the House (1972).

Heath was beaten by Wilson in the 1974 election, and in 1975 was ousted as the leader of the Conservative Party by Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher appointed Prior Shadow Employment Secretary, and then after winning the 1979 General Election, Secretary of State for Employment.

In his maiden speech in the House of Commons in 1959, Prior had declared that, “We have a duty, not only in economic terms, but also in social and moral terms, to make certain of giving every man a fair chance of having a decent day’s work,” which he later described as his guiding principle. However, his cautious approach in trade union disputes did not sit well with some of the his harder-edged cabinet colleagues, such as Norman Tebbit and Nigel Lawson and he was regarded as one of the “wets” in Thatcher’s first Cabinet.

In 1981 Thatcher re-shuffled her cabinet, forcing most of the “wets” from office. After several hours of agonising, Prior agreed to move to become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

After leaving the post of Northern Ireland Secretary in 1984, Prior was appointed Chairman of GEC, a post he held until 1998. He stepped down as an MP in 1987 and was ennobled as a Life Peer that same year.

Lord Prior was appointed an Honorary Fellow of Pembroke in 1992. He was appointed chairman of the College’s first fundraising campaign committee, which raised money for the construction of Foundress Court. He then served as president during Pembroke’s second fundraising campaign.

Lord Prior was pre-deceased by his wife Jane, but is survived by three sons and a daughter. His eldest son David (1973) serving as MP for North Norfolk between 1997 and 2001. He was elevated to the House of Lords in 2015 as Baron Prior of Brampton and appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health by David Cameron.

Guardian Obituary
Sky News Obituary

Image: BBC News