Ex-Secretary of State Jim Prior dies at age of 89

Lord James Prior at the launch of an anti-euro campaign in 1999, New Europe, to keep Britain out of an single currency but still within the European Union. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo.
Lord James Prior at the launch of an anti-euro campaign in 1999, New Europe, to keep Britain out of an single currency but still within the European Union. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo.

Lord Prior, the former Secretary of State and Conservative cabinet minister famous for ‘rolling devolution’, has died at age 89.

James Michael Leathes Prior was known for his frequent shouting matches with Margaret Thatcher in office and his attacks on her “humbug” after leaving government.

Indeed, there were memorable occasions when the ruddy-faced agriculturist - known as Farmer Jim - let it be known in public while he was still a minister, his scant regard, sometimes bordering on contempt, for the then prime minister.

Thatcher’s supporters regarded Prior as little short of wimpish in his famous “softly-softly” attitude towards the trade unions when he was employment secretary.

And as a result, the then prime minister “banished” him to the Northern Ireland Office, where he would be partially removed from the economic policies and decisions of her Government.

Lord Prior was born in 1927 and obtained a first-class degree in estate management from Cambridge University. He carried out his National Service as an officer in the Royal Norfolk Regiment in Germany and India. After that, he took up farming, working 350 acres in Suffolk. He served as MP for Lowestoft in 1959-83 and Waveney from 1983-87.

Like as his predecessors in Northern Ireland, Prior became obsessed with the place, and he devoted one third of his autobiography to it.

He is well known for “rolling devolution” in which he tried to devolve powers gradually to a new Assembly, which ran from 1982-1986. The scheme met with a mixed response from unionists and was firmly rejected by the SDLP as lacking a meaningful Irish dimension.

However Mrs Thatcher praised him for handling Northern Ireland with “energy, understanding and imagination” and mourned his departure. He left the House of Commons in 1987, became a life peer and then undertook a business life. He played football for Norwich City and cricket for the Marylebone Cricket Club and a number of other clubs.

He had three sons and a daughter with wife Jane. Their eldest son, David, served as Conservative MP for Norfolk North from 1997-2001 and was made a life peer in 2015.