The Lord Prior
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
In office
14 September 1981 – 27 September 1984
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byHumphrey Atkins
Succeeded byDouglas Hurd
Secretary of State for Employment
In office
4 May 1979 – 14 September 1981
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byAlbert Booth
Succeeded byNorman Tebbit
In office
5 November 1972 – 4 March 1974
Prime MinisterEdward Heath
Preceded byRobert Carr
Succeeded byEdward Short
Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
In office
20 June 1970 – 5 November 1972
Prime MinisterEdward Heath
Preceded byCledwyn Hughes
Succeeded byJoseph Godber
Member of Parliament
for Waveney
(Lowestoft, 1959–1983)
In office
8 October 1959 – 18 May 1987
Preceded byEdward Evans
Succeeded byDavid Porter
Shadow Cabinet positions
Shadow Secretary of State for Employment
In office
29 October 1974 – 4 May 1979
LeaderMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byReg Prentice
Succeeded byAlbert Booth
Shadow Home Secretary
In office
11 March 1974 – 13 June 1974
LeaderEdward Heath
Preceded byRoy Jenkins
Succeeded byKeith Joseph
Personal details
James Michael Leathes Prior

(1927-10-11)11 October 1927
Norwich, Norfolk, England
Died12 December 2016(2016-12-12) (aged 89)
Brampton, Suffolk, England
Political partyConservative
Jane Lywood
(m. 1954; died 2015)
Children4 (including David)
EducationCharterhouse School
Alma materPembroke College, Cambridge

James Michael Leathes Prior, Baron Prior, PC (11 October 1927 – 12 December 2016) was a British Conservative Party politician. A Member of Parliament from 1959 to 1987, he represented the Suffolk constituency of Lowestoft until 1983 and then the renamed constituency of Waveney from 1983 to 1987, when he stood down from the House of Commons and was made a life peer. He served in two Conservative cabinets, and outside parliament was Chairman of the Arab British Chamber of Commerce from 1996 to 2004.

Under Edward Heath, Prior was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from 1970 to 1972, then Leader of the House of Commons until Heath lost office in the wake of the February 1974 election. His party returned to power under Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and Prior was Secretary of State for Employment from 1979 to 1981, disagreeing with some of her views on trade unions and her monetarist economic policies generally. This made him a leader of the so-called "wet" faction in the Conservative ranks. In 1981 he was moved to the less pivotal role of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, from which he stood down in 1984; he never returned to government.[1]

Early life and career

Prior was born in Norwich, the son of solicitor Charles Bolingbroke Leathes Prior (1883–1964) and Aileen Sophia Mary (1893–1978), daughter of barrister Charles Storey Gilman.[2][3] Charles Prior's uncle was head of the family of Prior of Adstock Manor, Bletchley, Buckinghamshire; the family was closely related to the Lake baronets, the Stuart-Menteth baronets, the Blackett family of Wylam, Northumberland, and the Prideaux-Brune family of Prideaux Place, Cornwall.[4] Prior was educated at Orwell Park School, then at Charterhouse School before going on to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he earned a first class honours degree in Land economy. He performed his two-year National Service as an officer in the Royal Norfolk Regiment of the British Army, serving in Germany and India.[5]

He was first elected to Parliament in 1959, and was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from 1970 to 1972, then Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council until March 1974. He was one of several unsuccessful candidates in the Conservative Party's 1975 leadership election, entering at the second round and gaining 19 votes to Margaret Thatcher's 146.[3]

Cabinet years

Under Margaret Thatcher he was Secretary of State for Employment from May 1979 to 14 September 1981. Thatcher said of their relationship, "we agreed that trade unions had acquired far too many powers and privileges. We also agreed that these must be dealt with one step at a time. But when it came down to specific measures, there was deep disagreement about how fast and how far to move."[6]

Prior is believed to have annoyed Thatcher by being too friendly with trade union leaders, with Thatcher writing,

"He [Prior] had forged good relations with a number of trade union leaders whose practical value he perhaps overestimated."

During his period in the Cabinet, he is believed to have angered the right wing of his party and the Prime Minister for not pressing far enough with anti-trade union legislation. In the September 1981 cabinet reshuffle Prior was moved from the Employment portfolio to become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland,[7] an office he held until September 1984.[8] At the time of the reshuffle, it was reported that Prior considered following the sacked Ian Gilmour to the back benches to oppose the Thatcher Government's economic policies. However, Prior ultimately decided to accept being moved to the Northern Ireland Office after consulting cabinet colleagues William Whitelaw, then Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, and Francis Pym.[9] This transfer was widely seen as a move by Thatcher to isolate Prior, who disagreed with her on a number of economic issues. The post of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was seen as a dumping ground to marginalise ministers. However, when Prior resigned, Thatcher revealed that she was going to offer him another Cabinet post during the reshuffle, which would have very likely been a non-economic one.[3]

Later years

In 1986, he collaborated with John Cassels and Pauline Perry to create the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE), which would become the National Centre for Universities and Business in 2013. He also released a memoir, A balance of power.[10]

He retired from Parliament in 1987, and was created a life peer as Baron Prior, of Brampton in the County of Suffolk, on 14 October 1987.[11]

He was chairman and later vice-president of the Rural Housing Trust from 1990 to 1999.[3]

Following his retirement from politics he was much sought after in the world of business: he served as chairman of both GEC and Allders, and had directorships at Barclays, Sainsbury's and United Biscuits.[3]

Prior was interviewed about the rise of Thatcherism for the 2006 BBC TV documentary series Tory! Tory! Tory! and in 2012 as part of The History of Parliament's oral history project.[12][13]

Personal life and death

In January 1954, Prior married Jane Primrose Gifford Lywood, daughter of Air Vice-Marshal Oswyn George William Gifford Lywood, CB, CBE, a developer of the Typex cypher machines, of a landed gentry family of Woodlands, near Sevenoaks, Kent.[14][15] They were married until her death in 2015, and had four children.[3] Their eldest son David Prior held the seat of North Norfolk between 1997 and 2001, and was appointed Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State for NHS Productivity; he was later, in May 2015, elevated to the peerage in his own right as Baron Prior of Brampton.[3]

Lord Prior lived at the Old Hall in Brampton, Suffolk, where he died from prostate cancer on 12 December 2016, at the age of 89.[3][16][17]

Following Prior's death, Keith Simpson MP said of him: "In many ways he was a larger than life figure. He had a ruddy face, he played up to being the farmer. People underestimated him because he didn't claim to be a Keith Joseph or Enoch Powell parading their intellectualism. But he was somebody who was well-loved by the grassroots and was a decent man who was in politics out of a sense of public service."[18]


  1. ^ Young, Hugo, One of Us (1989), pp. 193–199
  2. ^ Burke's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, 107th edition, vol. 3, ed. Charles Mosley, Burke's Peerage Ltd, 2003, p. 3222
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Garnett, Mark (2020). "Prior, James Michael Leathes [Jim], Baron Prior". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.111592. ISBN 978-0-19-861412-8. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ Burke's Landed Gentry, 17th edition, ed. L.G. Pine, 1952, p. 2085
  5. ^ "Lord Prior obituary". 12 December 2016.
  6. ^ Thatcher, Margaret, The Downing Street Years, HarperCollins, 1993, p. 28.
  7. ^ Kehoe, Emmanuel (2 July 2006). "Charity queens and their subjects". The Sunday Business Post. Archived from the original on 1 October 2011. Retrieved 20 November 2010.
  8. ^ Parkhouse, Geoffrey (8 September 1984). "Thatcher in sombre mood over pit talks". The Glasgow Herald. p. 1. Retrieved 20 November 2010.
  9. ^ Parkhouse, Geoffrey (15 September 1981). "Sacked rebel hits out as Thatcher purges the 'Wets'". The Glasgow Herald. p. 1. Retrieved 24 January 2020.
  10. ^ "Prior, James Michael Leathes ('Jim') | Dictionary of Irish Biography".
  11. ^ "No. 51097". The London Gazette. 21 October 1987. p. 12971.
  12. ^ "Oral history: PRIOR, James (b.1927)". The History of Parliament. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  13. ^ "Lord James Prior interviewed by Mike Greenwood". British Library Sound Archive. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  14. ^ Burke's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, 107th edition, vol. 3, ed. Charles Mosley, Burke's Peerage Ltd, 2003, p. 3222
  15. ^ Burke's Landed Gentry, 17th edition, ed. L.G. Pine, 1952, p. 1602
  16. ^ "Former Conservative minister Lord Prior dies". BBC News. 12 December 2016. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
  17. ^ MacDonald, Henry (12 December 2016). "Jim Prior, former Conservative cabinet minister, dies aged 89". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
  18. ^ Dickson, Annabelle (12 December 2016). "Former Suffolk MP and member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet Lord (Jim) Prior has died". East Anglian Daily Times.
Parliament of the United Kingdom Preceded byEdward Evans Member of Parliament for Lowestoft 19591983 Constituency abolished New constituency Member of Parliament for Waveney 19831987 Succeeded byDavid Porter Political offices Preceded byCledwyn Hughes Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 1970–1972 Succeeded byJoseph Godber Preceded byRobert Carr Leader of the House of Commons 1972–1974 Succeeded byEdward Short Lord President of the Council 1972–1974 Preceded byAlbert Booth Secretary of State for Employment 1979–1981 Succeeded byNorman Tebbit Preceded byHumphrey Atkins Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1981–1984 Succeeded byDouglas Hurd