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End of gag-order breathes new life into Thatcher-era scandal

SHARE End of gag-order breathes new life into Thatcher-era scandal

LONDON — It was the most sensational scandal of Margaret Thatcher's prime ministership, and it has resurfaced in damning new detail with the end of a gag order that stilled all mention of the behavior of the disgraced Cabinet officer, his mistress and their child born 18 years ago.

For more than a decade, Sara Keays, 53, had been barred from talking about her 12-year affair with Thatcher's favorite minister and heir apparent, Cecil Parkinson, and their daughter, Flora.

But the court order silencing her expired on New Year's Eve, and on Thursday night Channel 4 broadcast a documentary interview with mother and child that laid bare the British establishment's effort to shelter Parkinson, 70, now a member of the House of Lords, and disparage Keays.

It also portrayed the damage caused Flora, who is learning disabled and says with pain and bewilderment on the program that she has never understood why her father will talk freely to people on television but has never once come to see her.

Parkinson, then the Conservative Party chairman, was credited with masterminding Thatcher's 1983 landslide re-election and had just been given a high-profile Cabinet post when word emerged that Keays was pregnant and intended to have her baby.

The Times of London broke the story at the time, and Friday's Times recalled in dramatic detail how Thatcher summoned the minister to her hotel room at 2 a.m. to tell him to consider his future and how six hours later he handed her his resignation and then slipped out a back door with his wife, Ann.

While his chances of becoming prime minister were derailed, his political career was not. He returned to the Cabinet in 1987 and gained other top Conservative positions, including a return to the party chairmanship in 1997 when William Hague became leader. He became a lord in 1992, the same year he published his autobiography, in which he said he had received 16,000 letters approving his action in 1983 and only 50 critical of him.

Keays, who had been Parkinson's secretary in the House of Commons, saw her life follow a different course, one she was only now able to disclose publicly. She had to leave work to care for Flora, who, as a youngster, showed signs of epilepsy and had to have a brain tumor removed at age 4. The operation left her with learning difficulties.

Parkinson held to his resolve to have nothing to do with the girl, first uttered when Keays turned down his request that she have an abortion.

Meanwhile, persistent rumors emerged from 10 Downing Street and the Conservative Central Office that Keays had repeatedly urged him to leave his wife and had entrapped him with her pregnancy. In fact, she said Thursday, she had tried to end the affair on several occasions and even left Britain only to have him follow her to the Continent and persuade her to return.

When the original money settlement with Parkinson failed to cover medical costs, she sought an increase. In exchange for the new arrangement in 1993, she agreed to a restrictive court order that had only been used once before, and that time to guard the privacy of a child killer from media intrusion.

Applied to the new case, the order had the effect of banning Flora from appearing in class photographs, having her name listed in school sporting events, publicly accepting awards, appearing in academic theatricals or even having her name posted on notice boards.

"They were little things that would have meant such a lot to her, little successes in her otherwise very bleak existence," Keays said. "Flora was made to feel separate, an outsider, a leper."

The injunction obtained by Parkinson was extraordinary even in Britain, where laws governing the news media tend to enshrine secrecy and protect the reputations of the powerful. "It was an abomination, the sort of thing you could imagine happening in Stalinist Russia," Keays said.

Mark Stephens, a London specialist in media law, said he doubted such an order would be issued by a British court today.

"I think it's fair to say that judges have been through a learning process, that they now have an understanding that children have rights," he said. "The judges 18 years ago came from restricted backgrounds of public school, Oxford or Cambridge and then the bar with no contact with the media at all. They looked upon the media with positive disdain."

In its most affecting moment, Thursday's documentary showed Flora watching film footage of her father from 1983 and having a conversation with her mother.

"I wish I'd met my daddy," she says.

"I know darling," her mother answers.

She reproaches her mother. "You haven't made it possible."

"Well no, I haven't prevented it. He didn't want to have anything to do with us."

"Did my Dad ever see me when I was born?"

"No darling. No, he's never seen you."

"Did you let him see me after I was born?"

"I didn't stop him. He chose not to."

"Did he just see me once when I was born or never?"

"No, never."

A spokeswoman for Parkinson said he would have no comment.