Cecil Parkinson. Sara Keays.
Two names, a dead man, and a living woman, prominent in a judgment of the Chancery Division of the High Court in May 2018. Two names that instantly recall the 1980s, for anyone old enough to remember that decade, or rather the slightly extended political decade that began with Margaret Thatcher’s first General Election victory in the spring of 1979 and ended with her departure as Prime Minister in the autumn of 1990.
Cecil Parkinson’s and Sara Keays’ names are associated in particular with 1983, the year of the Conservatives’ victory in the General Election that fell between the Falklands War of 1982 and the miners’ strike of 1985. A political moment recorded not only in history but in fiction, on the opening page of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel “The Line of Beauty” — followed a few pages later by a fictional account of a minister’s resignation following a sexual scandal (in the story, a homosexual scandal).
As chairman of the Conservative Party, Cecil Parkinson was largely responsible for the success of the campaign that on Thursday 9 June 1983, delivered Margaret Thatcher’s second term as Prime Minister, in one of the most decisive post-war election results. He expected promotion as a result, and to see himself established as heir apparent to succeed her.
The Conservative politician Alan Clark’s published Diaries record a conversation with Cecil Parkinson in December 1983, after the revelation of his affair and Sara Keays’ pregnancy, which led to his political downfall during the Conservative Party’s conference that autumn:
“We had a long talk. I said it was a disaster, the whole thing. He would have been Prime Minister. Yes, he admitted, all this he knew privately. He was the Lady’s own choice, she had been grooming him, introducing him to the Royals — especially the Prince of Wales. He was going to the Foreign Office, would have really sorted it out, shifted it from ‘diplomacy’ to trade promotion. The switch could then have happened when the time was ripe, certainly no later than her tenth anniversary.
Was he, could he come back? Yes. Yes, if she wants me.
But he had to pine in the wilderness for some little time. Colleagues were determined to keep him out.
Cecil said that the Prime Minister was much tougher than anyone realised. She was getting stroppy letters from Colonel Keays, all kinds of threat, never turned a hair. But once she decided to chop him, that was it.
Cecil said he could never see the child. But what, I asked, if it was a son? He didn’t reply. You would have to embrace it. You would have to go down on your knees to Ann, and ask for permission.
He drew the conversation to a close and we parted.
What a waste. He is a good man, Cecil. Underrated just because he is handsome. But he has come the whole way on his own. And once he had actually got there, no longer had to dissimulate, I think he would have been importantly good.”
No word in Alan Clark’s account, of Sara Keays herself, and any “importantly good” contribution that she might have made to politics, or of whether a man should seek an affronted wife’s permission to “embrace” a mistress’s daughter, no less than a son.
Dominic Sandbrook, writing in the Daily Mail shortly after Cecil Parkinson’s death in January 2016 described him as
“precisely the kind of man whose company [Mrs Thatcher] adored: handsome, ambitious and charming in an old-fashioned, raffish way, a Home Counties Ronald Reagan”
He narrates the story of 9th June 1983
That [election] night, Mrs Thatcher told him that he could have whichever job he wanted. ‘I’d thought of Foreign Secretary,’ she said. ‘Foreign Secretary for two or three years, then Chancellor. Then it’s up to you.’
But Parkinson had a secret — ‘a very big personal problem’, as he put it. On the surface, he was happily married to Ann Jarvis, his wife since 1957. But now he confessed that for 12 years he had been having an affair with his secretary, Sara Keays.
Surprising as it may seem, Mrs Thatcher was completely unruffled. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’ she said dismissively. ‘They tell me Anthony Eden [the former Tory prime minister] leapt into bed with any good-looking woman. You can sort this out.’
The next day, however, she received a letter from Sara’s father, Colonel Hastings Keays, announcing that his daughter was pregnant. As it happened, Parkinson was coming to No 10 for lunch.
‘When Cecil arrived I showed him the letter,’ Mrs Thatcher wrote later. ‘It must have been one of the worst moments of his life.’
Instead of the Foreign Office, Cecil Parkinson accepted the post of Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and held it over the summer until the Conservative Party’s autumn conference, when a public statement from Sara Keays led to his resignation in the morning of 15 October 1983.
The Guardian wrote at the time:
Cecil Parkinson’s last day as a minister began at 2am yesterday, when the telephone rang at his bedside in the Imperial Hotel, Blackpool. The call was from Downing Street, where an aide read out a detailed statement made a few hours earlier by his former secretary, Miss Sara Keays, and published in the Times. Simultaneously, another aide was reading the statement to Mrs Thatcher, who was woken up in her suite along the corridor from Mr Parkinson. At 8am the Prime Minister summoned her Trade Secretary to her room, and a few minutes later, “with regret,” accepted his resignation. It was a sudden and clinical end to days of sniggering scandal. Late on Thursday night, Miss Keays had insisted her statement be relayed by Downing Street direct to Mrs Thatcher and to Mr Parkinson at Blackpool.
Tory representatives queued and jostled as the edition containing the Sara Keays statement went on sale at the Winter Gardens conference centre. The conference chairman, Mr Peter Lane, read out the Downing Street statement announcing Mrs Thatcher’s acceptance of the minister’s resignation, and at 10am Mr Parkinson and his wife Ann quietly slipped out of the Imperial Hotel by a side door to drive the lonely 240 miles south to London.
Alan Clark described the events, as if in one of Mozart’s da Ponte operas, in his published Diaries
“Thursday, 13 October
Poor old Cecil had a bad time. The Lady is determined to save him, but Sara Keays is equally obsessed about getting her pound of flesh. The delegates are divided, and it is not easy to tell in what proportion. Those who support Cecil are vocal, of course, and give little interviews to the camera. But I have a nasty feeling that there is a silent majority who are disapproving, and shocked.
Cecil himself is handsome and fresh-faced. Seems at times almost to be the injured party. But what an ordeal! His wife, his mistress and his boss, all throwing scenes, sometimes all within the same hour.”
Sara Keays said
‘My baby was conceived in a long-standing, loving relationship,’ she wrote, ‘which I allowed to continue because I believed in our eventual marriage.’ But when she told Parkinson she was pregnant, she claimed, he insisted she must have an abortion, for the sake of his career.
Her daughter, Flora, was born on 31 December 1983.
Flora suffered severe epilepsy in infancy and early childhood, and underwent brain surgery at the age of 4. She was described in the May 2018 judgment as suffering from “reasonably severe physical and mental disabilities”. In her mother’s words, in an interview published in the Daily Mail after Cecil Parkinson’s death:
“At 18 months, she suffered almost constant epileptic fits and at the age of four, had a five-hour operation to remove a benign brain tumour. The whole of her frontal lobe was cut out, with serious results as this is the area that controls such qualities as judgment, problem solving and emotional expression. She is very vulnerable.”
Sara herself, again in the words of the May 2018 judgment, “has never married, and has devoted her life to the claimant’s care, welfare and education since her birth”.
The May 2018 judgment records [paragraph 44(3)], that in January 1984, Cecil Parkinson gave Sara Keays £47,500 to compensate her for lost earnings for the first three years of Flora’s life. This was the only payment he ever made directly to her.
Sara and Flora’s lives in Flora’s childhood were described in an interview with Hunter Davies in the Independent in 1993. Sara Keays spoke of several libel actions she had successfully fought against newspapers, and against Norman Tebbit, saying:
‘Parkinson’s friends in the Tory party had organised a smear campaign against me, leaking lies to newspapers. It was said I’d got pregnant deliberately to make him marry me. That I’d been promiscuous and that perhaps he wasn’t the father. Then when I published my book in 1985, they said I was a kiss-and-tell bimbo. All of them damned lies.’
She also described her own lost ambitions for her future.
If they had got married, as Parkinson had promised (which he confirmed in his autobiography), who knows what might have happened? Would she be in Downing Street today, married to the Prime Minister? Would she perhaps be in the Cabinet herself? She had been accepted by Central Office on its official list of candidates. She did apply once, didn’t make the shortlist, but was planning to try again. ‘Then I found I had been removed from the list without anyone telling me. The list of vacancies simply stopped coming. Absolutely disgusting.’
She still has political ambitions, despite an invalid father and a handicapped child to look after. She was interested in politics from an early age and her family were solid Tory supporters. But she will never vote Tory again. At the last election, she voted Labour.
‘I hate the hypocrisy of the Tory party. I detest their campaign against single mums. I would like to have gone into Parliament and, who knows, there might come a chance in the future. I’d like to stand for something like a Women’s Party, fighting for better health, better housing, better education, all the social problems which should never get mixed up with party politics.’
On 9 March 1993 a court order was made ordering financial provision for Flora in her father’s lifetime of £20,000 a year, paid in quarterly instalments of £5,000. In an interview with Angela Levin for the Mail on Sunday, after Cecil Parkinson’s death, Sara Keays said:
‘Despite being a rich man when Flora was born, he initially paid just £3,000 a year maintenance,’ explains Sara. ‘Shortly after Flora’s operation, this rose to £10,000 a year.
‘Her needs were so extensive, I appealed in the courts for more and in 1988 maintenance was set at £5,000 a quarter, a sum I was unable to increase when I went back to court in 1993. Instead, he managed to get the court to impose the injunction [an order which prevented anyone, including Sara, from talking openly about his daughter].
‘His maintenance for her — I never asked for anything for myself — was never increased in line with inflation as it should have been and remained the same until his death 23 years later.’
As the May 2018 judgment makes clear [paragraph 35], Sara Keays made no financial claim on Flora’s behalf of Cecil Parkinson after 1993, and he volunteered to continue paying maintenance for Flora once she became an adult.
31 December 2001
On 31 December 2001 Flora turned 18, the injunction made in 1993 lapsed, and, as the Daily Telegraph said “she was, for the first time in her life, given a voice.” She said of her father:
“I would like to see him. If he loved me, he would want to see me and be in my everyday life. . . I would like to go to the cinema with him and have some fun”
But they never met. The Daily Telegraph was pointed in its headline: “The only promise Cecil Parkinson ever kept — never to see his daughter”.
22 January 2016
Cecil Parkinson died on 22 January 2016, leaving an estate declared for probate on 22 April 2016 with a net value of £1,141,310. His will, made in 2009, made no provision for Flora, and the only reference to her was the words
“Having made separate provision for my daughter Flora Keays, I make no provision for her under this my Will”.
The maintenance payments of £5,000 a quarter ended on 1 March 2016.
As explained in the judgment published on 8 May 2018, and described in Angela Levin’s interviews with Sara Keays, the reference to “separate provision” in the will was apparently a reference to the £350,000 proceeds of a life insurance policy. The May 2018 judgment [paragraph 7] explains that the true position as to who is entitled to these proceeds “is not entirely clear”, but it seems that there is a trust of the £350,000, of which Flora is the nominated beneficiary, but the trustees have a power to override this nomination in favour of other beneficiaries.
Cecil Parkinson’s death, and the absence of provision in his will for Flora, were widely reported in the news in early 2016, and Sara Keays gave interviews to Angela Levin for the Mail on Sunday about the financial hardship that she and her daughter faced.
The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975
I thought it likely, if not inevitable, that there would be a claim on Flora’s behalf against Cecil Parkinson’s estate, under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“The Inheritance Act”). There is a primary time limit for bringing such a claim, which is six months after the date of probate — in this case that time limit was 21 October 2016. The court has power to extend this time limit, and it’s quite common for people disputing such claims to agree a “standstill” period between them, in order to extend time for providing information and negotiating the compromise of a claim without the expense of preparing court documents and issuing proceedings, and complying with all of the case management directions the court makes after a claim is issued. Following publication of the 8 May 2018 judgment, it’s clear that there was such a standstill period in this case, that the claim was still issued late, on 6 March 2017, a few weeks after the standstill period ended, but that Master Clark gave permission for the claim to proceed out of time at the hearing on 9 April 2018.
Many lawyers who work in the field of inheritance disputes will have met adult children who never knew one or both of their parents: some born to unmarried mothers and hastily adopted a few days after birth, or who were not adopted, but grew up believing a young mother to be their older sister, and their grandparents, their parents; some, like Flora Keays, brought up by single mothers whose lovers chose not to live with them and acknowledge their own children. As I write, I vividly recall four such people: three born in the 1950s and one in the 1970s. It’s not our role to judge their parents’ moral lives and choices, but to listen to their children’s stories, and advise them about their rights and help them to secure them as painlessly as possible — or, equally dispassionately, to listen to the stories of the wives (for they are generally, wives), and the children of their marriages, who never knew of a step-brother or step-sister who was their father’s love-child, or who was adopted long before their birth, and advise and help them in precisely the same way.
With this knowledge, when I read about the aftermath of Cecil Parkinson’s death, I also thought it likely that any such claim on behalf of Flora would be compromised without litigation and on confidential terms, and never come to public attention. But following the publication of the High Court judgment on 8 May, it is now public knowledge that an Inheritance Act claim has been brought on Flora’s behalf by her mother. I will not comment further on the merits of the claim, as it has not yet been determined, nor on any of the individual lawyers mentioned, who I know professionally, but only on issues decided in the recently-published judgment. As Cecil Parkinson’s daughter, Flora is unquestionably eligible to bring a claim for reasonable provision to be made from the estate. The publicly-known facts that no provision was made for her in the will, although her father was financially maintaining her up to his death and made some provision for her in connection with the £350,000 life insurance policy, and that she has disabilities which appear to mean she cannot live and work fully independently as an adult are all relevant to such a claim. The legal questions:
- whether Cecil Parkinson’s will fails to make reasonable provision for Flora, and if so,
- whether reasonable provision should be ordered for her maintenance, and if so,
- how much financial provision and and in what form should be ordered for her,
will ultimately either be discretionary decisions for a judge after a trial, or be the subject of a negotiated compromise. Even this must be approved by a judge on behalf of Flora as an adult who does not have capacity to do so for herself.
9 April and 8 May 2018
Following a hearing on 9 April 2018, the judgment of Master Clark was published on 8 May. The claim on Flora’s behalf under the Inheritance Act was begun between Flora herself, with Sara acting as her daughter’s litigation friend, and the executors of Cecil Parkinson’s estate, who are Christopher Lewis, a solicitor, and Cecil Parkinson’s daughter Emma. Although Flora is an adult, because of her disabilities, she unfortunately lacks sufficient mental capacity to manage the litigation for herself, and that is the reason why she has a litigation friend acting for her. Under the rules for conducting Inheritance Act claims, executors must be made defendants to a claim. Executors who are not themselves beneficiaries of an estate usually take a neutral position and their role is limited to providing information and putting the court’s ultimate order into effect. The real dispute in an Inheritance Act claim is between the person bringing the claim, and the beneficiaries who inherit the estate. In paragraph 15 of the judgment, Master Clark mentions that the beneficiaries should have been included as defendants to the claim at the outset, and that she ordered them to be made parties at the hearing on 9 April.
In the Inheritance Act claim, Sara Keays set out what financial provision she was seeking on behalf of Flora:
(1) an interim payment to meet mortgage arrears of about £12,000 as at January 2017
(2) a capital sum to buy a house for Flora, close to where she lives now
(3) a capital sum to be invested to provide maintenance for Flora of £50,000 a year
The judgment published on 8 May is not a final judgment on Flora Keays’ Inheritance Act claim, but on a pre-trial application brought by Cecil Parkinson’s executors. The executors were asking the court to replace Sara Keays with a named solicitor to act as Flora’s litigation friend. As the judgment explains, a litigation friend must be someone who has no interest adverse to that of the person whose litigation they are conducting, and must be able to “fairly and competently conduct proceedings” on behalf of, in this case, Flora Keays. A litigation friend can self-certify that he or she meets these conditions, as Sara Keays did. But the executors contested both her absence of an adverse interest, and her ability to manage the claim “fairly and competently”. Some time before the hearing in the spring of 2018, Sara Keays had agreed in principle to a solicitor replacing her as litigation friend, and had proposed a specific solicitor to do so, but at the hearing, the executors argued (1) against Sara Keays’ suitability to act as litigation friend and (2) objected to her proposed replacement, seeking also to withdraw any offer to pay the solicitor’s costs either for acting as litigation friend or for conducting the litigation itself. Master Clark ruled firmly against the executors on both these points, and ordered that Sara’s nominated solicitor should act as the litigation friend and should be paid out of the estate for the time being, with the trial judge ultimately deciding whether Flora or the beneficiaries of the estate should bear these costs.
The executors’ objections to Sara Keays acting as Flora’s litigation friend are discussed in paragraphs 32–46 of the judgment. The objections went deep into the history of Sara’s actions on Flora’s behalf between 1983 and 1995, and also criticised her conduct of the Inheritance Act claim following Cecil Parkinson’s death. Master Clark did not accept [paragraph 35] that the executors’ evidence showed that Sara Keays “is extravagant, or that she is likely to commit a contempt of court in these proceedings”. She also did not accept that Sara Keays had a “highly litigious” relationship with Cecil Parkinson at the date of his death, almost 13 years after the court order of March 1993.
It’s notable that Master Clark said [in paragraph 42] that she was not satisfied that “if Ms Keays were able to instruct a competent solicitor with relevant expertise, she would not be able to fairly and competently conduct the proceedings”. As explained at paragraphs 10-11 of the judgment, Sara Keays had initially instructed a solicitor to correspond with the executors’ solicitors, but could not afford to continue to do so, and the solicitor she used did not accept cases on a conditional fee basis, which is an arrangement under which many Inheritance Act claims are brought. Instead, Sara Keays instructed a barrister under the Direct Professional Access scheme on a conditional fee basis. There is no record of a barrister acting for her in the heading to the published judgment on BAILII, but this may be a clerical omission.
Inheritance Act claims generally require a lot of detailed evidence from claimants, making their financial position and other personal circumstances clear and attempting to evaluate and justify their needs in the foreseeable future. The judgment well illustrates the burden of the tasks of managing a claim of this type that fall on a litigant who doesn’t have continuity of support from a suitable solicitor. Without expressing any partisan view, I hope that now that a suitable solicitor is to act as Flora’s litigation friend, this claim will come to an acceptable resolution in the not-too-distant future, and that this part of a nearly 35-years’ old story will come to an end with it.