Belfast Telegraph

Theresa May leads tributes to former cabinet minister Lord Prior

Theresa May has led tributes to Conservative former cabinet minister Lord Prior ,who has died aged 89.

Jim Prior served for five years in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, where he was regarded as one of the leading "wets" who opposed her monetarist economic policies.

Originally appointed employment secretary when she became prime minister in 1979, he was moved to the post of Northern Ireland secretary two years later.

Mrs May praised his "years of public service" and said he was part of the "long line of people who worked to bring peace to Northern Ireland".

But his appointment to the Northern Ireland job was seen at the time as a sign of Mrs Thatcher's frustration at Mr Prior's refusal to press ahead more quickly with her trade union reforms.

First elected to Parliament as MP for Lowestoft in 1959, Mr Prior rose to prominence under Edward Heath - then leader of the opposition - who picked him as his parliamentary private secretary in 1965.

When the Conservatives gained power in 1970, Mr Prior was rewarded with promotion to the Cabinet as agriculture minister, before becoming leader of the Commons two years later.

Following Mr Heath's downfall in the wake of the Tories' 1974 general election defeat, Mr Prior stood for the Conservative leadership but gained the votes of just 19 MPs.

Although on the opposite wing of the party from Mrs Thatcher, who emerged triumphant in the leadership contest, she nevertheless kept him in her top team, handing him the key employment portfolio.

The tensions between the two came to a head in government, as he resisted her programme of reforms designed to break the power of the trade unions following the industrial chaos which brought down the Heath government.

Unafraid to stand up to her, Mr Prior publicly resisted her attempts to lever him out of the employment brief into Northern Ireland, before finally succumbing in September 1981 in return for a token seat on the economic policy committee.

"I was playing for high stakes and I got it wrong," he later admitted.

He nevertheless immersed himself in his new role before finally resigning from the government in September 1984. He stood down as an MP at the 1987 general election and was subsequently made a life peer.

His eldest son, David, was the Conservative MP for North Norfolk between 1997 and 2001 and is currently serving as a junior health minister, having been made a peer in his own right by David Cameron in 2015.

The Prime Minister said: "I was sorry to hear of the death of Jim Prior, who served as a Member of Parliament for 28 years, and a member of the House of Lords for another 30.

"His years of public service include his work as a Cabinet minister under both Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher. As a Northern Ireland secretary, he sought to re-establish devolved government and was part of the long line of people who worked to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

"My thoughts are with his children and grandchildren - not least his son David, who followed in his father's footsteps as a Norfolk MP and minister - at this sad time."

Former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine paid tribute to Lord Prior's "sense of service", which led him to enter politics.

"He was a man who had strong values in politics. He knew what he believed in and no-one was going to shift him. He was a rock, a man of integrity," he told the BBC.

Former cabinet minister Lord Baker of Dorking, who also served under Mrs Thatcher, said Lord Prior had been in government at a "very difficult time" for the country.

"Jim Prior was the epitome of decency. People who knew him and worked with him would say he was a good, upright man," he told the BBC.

"He was dealing with militant trade unionism. The trade unions had actually brought Ted Heath down and James Callaghan down, and Margaret Thatcher was quite determined that she wasn't going to be the third victim.

"Jim Prior struggled very hard at that time to find a way through that would somehow reconcile the interests of organised labour with those of safely continuing government.

"That was a very difficult thing to do."

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