John Barnes, Historian

Lord Prentice

A great many people will remember Reg Prentice as the first and only Cabinet minister since Churchill to cross the floor of the House, join the main Opposition party and serve in a Conservative government. He left the Labour party on the eve of the Conservative party conference in 1977 and without paying any heed to the customary gesture of sitting for a while as an independent, immediately sat on the Conservative benches. Not unnaturally there was anger amongst his former colleagues and Shirley Williams, herself to defect a few years later for much the same reasons, roundly condemned his action. Part of her anger stemmed from her knowledge that, only two years earlier, Roy Jenkins had warned the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, that he could not stay in a government from which Prentice had been sacked and that in June 1975, when Wilson sought to move him to a post outside Cabinet, Jenkins had threatened to go unless Prentice retained his Cabinet place. As Tam Dalyell explains, "The betrayal was felt most keenly by those who had risked their political necks to defend him. It had taken guts to go to the barricades to defend him against Militant and the pill was the more bitter for the recriminations they faced for putting their confidence in a man who had subsequently defected."

Others were simply sad. Michael Stewart said that he could, "with great difficulty, understand how the behaviour of a faction in the Newham North East Labour Party drove him to feel that he must desert Labour; what I find incomprehensible is that he should be willing to work with people whose whole concept of politics and standard of values conflict with those which he had advocated for so long and with such fervour." But that was in 1980, and a good many social democrats were to follow Prentice out of the party before it was drawn back into more moderate courses later in the decade.

There were immediate calls that he should resign his seat, but he was adamant that it was not he who had changed his views, but the Labour party. There was, he said, "a growing emphasis on class war and Marxist dogma" and his personal experience lent force to this judgement. He had for some time fought a running battle in his Newham constituency against left wing activists who were determined to deselect him. Political scientists have identified his "important role in orchestrating" the hostile view taken by the press of Labour's 1976 programme.

But if this was the most dramatic episode in a long career, he deserves to be better remembered for his work at the Department of Overseas Development, a post he held twice, and for his work at the Department of Education, to which he returned for an unduly brief period as Secretary of State for Education and Science. He completed his ministerial career, amidst undisguised resentment from some long-serving Conservative MPs, as Minister for Social Security in Mrs Thatcher's first Government.

He was, Roy Jenkins recalls, "a man of flat-footed courage". Honest, but stubborn almost to the point of foolhardiness, he acted always on principle, but in his thirty year move from well to the Left of the party to the point where he was prepared to break with it, he antagonised many, not all of them far from his own position. No mean debater, if he was subject to vitriolic attack in his own party, or across the floor of the House, he always able to give it back in kind. Denis Healey, who refused Prentice's backing in his constituency battles, nevertheless pays tribute to "a decent chap".

Reginald Ernest Prentice was the only son of lower middle class parents and was brought up in the Tory borough of Croydon. His father was a maker of scientific instruments. Although his parents were Tory, as a boy he never shared their views. Educated at elementary school, he won a scholarship to Whitgift, where he felt the masters rather looked down on those who did not pay fees. After a spell as a temporary civil servant, he spent the years 1942-6 in the Royal Artillery, was commissioned in 1943 and fought in the Italian campaign, finishing his war in Austria. Like so many fellow young officers, Lieutenant Prentice emerged from the army a convinced Socialist.. He completed his education by taking a B.Sc. (Econ) at the London School of Economics, where he specialised in Government and was greatly influenced by Laski. In 1950 became a trade union official, serving as the TGWU's Legal Secretary's assistant and taking charge of the union's Advice and Service Bureau. His experience of the social security system underpinned his contribution to the handbook, Social Welfare and the Citizen (1957).

While still a student, he began his political career in 1949 as a Croydon borough councillor, but initially was less fortunate in his efforts to secure a parliamentary seat. He contested Croydon North unsuccessfully in 1950 and 1951 and was unable to dislodge Duncan Sandys from Streatham in 1955. Two years later, with TGWU backing, his fortunes changed. He fought and won East Ham North in a bye-election in May 1957 and retained the seat until February 1974, when he took over the new seat of Newham NE. The Conservative party found him a seat at Daventry for the 1979 General Election and after ill health brought about his resignation from Mrs Thatcher's Government in 1981, he continued to represent Daventry until 1987, standing down at the age of 63 in 1987. Mrs Thatcher gave him a knighthood and five years later John Major gave him a peerage. He took the title of Lord Prentice of Daventry.

His ministerial career began with a post as Minister of State in the Department of Education when the Labour party returned to government in October 1964 after thirteen years in opposition. His private secretary, nor surprisingly, recalls him as "very raw and not best pleased to be there - he had expected to be Minister of Labour. He was very nice to work for, pleasant and easygoing, biddable up to a point, but then he drew a line in the sand and you couldn't move him." He adds that Prentice had "clear ideas and pushed for them. Left to himself he would have done something drastic about the rights and privileges of the public schools and he was not at all keen when steps were taken to slow any possible change by the appointment of a commission to review their future." Although slow to anger, he became very cross when briefing Lord Snow on the subject and the latter said, "But Reginald" - he hated being called Reginald - "does that mean I can't send my children to Eton?" And when he visited Eton, he was questioned about the school's future. "We're going to make it into a special school for the deaf" was the reply.

He had a close working relationship with Wilma Harte, the Under Secretary in charge of secondary education, and speedily came to share her enthusiasm for comprehensivisation. His first ministerial chief, Michael Stewart, was impressed: "an able and energetic minister, full of generous ideas." He helped pilot the bill creating new machinery for negotiating teachers' salaries, shared Stewart's disappointment when the Cabinet decided not to proceed with legislation on secondary school reorganisation and urged Stewart's successor, Tony Crosland, to "require" local authorities to make their systems of secondary education comprehensive. Crosland preferred to "request" them to do so, but in their control of the building programme, they found a means to further the policy to an extent that almost made legislation redundant.

Prentice was rewarded in 1966 with his own department, Public Building and Works, and as "a proved administrator and good in the House" (Harold Wilson's verdict) seemed the ideal candidate to become Minister of Overseas Development when the Prime Minister reshuffled his government at the end of August 1967. Wilson knew him as "a devoted supporter of world development over many years" and it proved a job after Prentice's own heart, so much so that when Wilson moved him to another ministerial role under Benn in the Ministry of Technology in the autumn of 1969, he was reluctant to accept it. He may well have been disappointed at another sideways move when he had looked to be promoted to the Cabinet, but he was concerned also that the move might be a chance for the Treasury to cut the aid and development programmes that had just been agreed. Wilson was able to reassure him on the latter point since he had backed him against the Chancellor when settling the rolling programme for the early '70s and had created the department in the first place. But Prentice remained unhappy at the move and after four days resigned. Wilson sought to change his mind - he claimed that he had Prentice in view for early promotion to the Cabinet if he won the General Election. But as he records, overseas development had become for Prentice "not only a ministerial job but his dedicated mission" and he preferred to pursue it from the backbenches rather than serve as number three in Benn's giant Ministry of Technology.

His resignation did him no harm in Wilson's eyes. After a brief spell on the backbenches during which he became an Alderman on the Greater London Council, he returned to the Opposition front bench in January 1972 to speak on unemployment matters. In April, to considerable surprise, he took second place in the shadow Cabinet elections and thereafter shadowed the Ministry of Labour. Critics claimed that he anaesthetised debate by long and boring speeches, but, more to the point, he was no longer acceptable to the trade unions. When Labour took office in March 1974, he became Secretary of State for Education and Science, a post that he retained until June 1975.

Almost immediately he announced that he would legislate to end selection, although promising full consultation before the bill was drafted. There was no chance of taking it through before the Government had fought and won another election in October 1974, but in the event the bill was not published until December 1975. By then Prentice had been reshuffled. In January 1975 he began to phase out the direct grant schools. Ironically, most of them, contrary to his hopes, decided to seek full independence rather than incorporation in the state sector. As public expenditure cuts began to bite he clashed with the NUT over his blunt statement that jobs could no longer be guaranteed to all those leaving teacher training and he roused anger in the Universities with an even sharper warning that they had more fat to lose than anyone else in the education world. It was not these rows, but his predilection for making wider ranging speeches outside his brief that angered Wilson, more particularly when he was critical of the failure of the Government's social contract with the unions. Its avowed enemies were not to blame, although they were "prepared to sacrifice the working people of this country on the altar of their Marxist ideology. The fault lies with those who allow them to get away with it.... The Government have kept their side of the bargain. The trade unions must not welsh on theirs." There was uproar. The Employment Secretary, Michael Foot, repudiated the speech and Wilson let it be known that he had rebuked Prentice. But, not a whit deterred, on 1 June, during the referendum campaign on continued membership of the EEC, Prentice spoke of the public's dislike of the party dogfight. His call for the continued unity of realistic and moderate politicians was taken, mistakenly perhaps, to be a call for coalition.

At this point Wilson would have liked to be shot of him, but he could not drop him from the Government without losing Roy Jenkins as well. He therefore signalled his displeasure by offering Prentice a return to Overseas Development, but outside the Cabinet. If he hoped thus to outmanoeuvre Jenkins, he failed. Even that was a resigning issue, Jenkins said and Wilson gave way. Prentice's place in the Cabinet was secure, but not his place at Education. As he ruefully confessed, he could hardly resign over being given Overseas Development when he had previously resigned for being removed from that job.

Once a convinced opponent of British membership of the European Community, he had shifted "right" on that issue as well and in Cabinet voted against a binding referendum and for the decision to continue British membership. He played a full part in the Referendum campaign. His growing doubts about Keynesian economic policies, shared with Edmund Dell, made them the strongest supporters of the more deflationary course set by Healey at the Treasury in the summer of 1975, so much so that they were criticised for their "Healier than thou attitude" to public expenditure cuts.

Prentice's last eighteen months in the Cabinet were dominated by the increasingly bitter row with his constituency party. He did not live in the East End and may well have given Militant their opportunity by being a less than assiduous constituency MP. But the small group working against him was ideologically motivated, and that was why more than 180 Labour MPs and a dozen Cabinet ministers wrote in his support to the constituency party. Despite this, the management committee deselected him on 24 July. With the help of self-professed moderates, including the future Conservative MP, Julian Lewis, he continued the fight even though the National Executive turned down his appeal. He took his case to Conference in October 1976 but again his appeal fell on deaf ears.

Prentice had been one of those most active in campaigning for Callaghan's election to the Party Treasurership in 1967 and that may have played a part in the latter's decision to continue him in the Cabinet when he took over the Prime Ministership in April 1976. Prentice was able therefore to continue his staunch support for the Chancellor throughout the IMF crisis that autumn, but found he could not stomach the final shape of the cuts agreed in December. He could not vote for them and resigned from the Cabinet on 21 December. A bitter exchange of letters with the Prime Minister followed. Thereafter he was increasingly at odds with his party, not least over devolution. The Government's inability to rely on his vote and that of a handful of others forced them into a pact with the Liberals in March 1977. It came as no surprise when he finally broke with the Labour party, but his decision to joining the Conservatives was a shock.

At his fourth attempt, he found a safe Conservative seat in Daventry and further reward with the Social Security brief in Mrs Thatcher's government. She was certainly making a political point, but it was a sound appointment in itself and Prentice found some satisfaction in taking up issues that he had dealt with as a young trade union official. But the decision to remove unemployment benefits from strikers was anathema to his former colleagues and the word "Judas" was often hurled across the Chamber. He had always looked to have problems with his blood pressure and towards the end of 1980, the drugs that he was taking for hypertension increasingly precluded him from doing an effective job. His ministerial colleague, Lynda Chalker, took on much of his work and in January 1981 he left the Government. In his last years in the Commons he seemed increasingly out of step with his new colleagues, but after his retirement he spent two years on the Executive Committee of the National Union. His main concern was to prevent constituencies from deselecting those who had ousted Mrs Thatcher.

Although he accepted a peerage, he was never active in the Lords and he spent most of his time in Marlborough, where he was a member of the golf club and liked to walk. When he died, he had been married to his wife Joan for over fifty years. She and their daughter survive him.