A chartered accountant by training, he entered Parliament in 1970 and was appointed a minister in Margaret Thatcher's first government in 1979. He successfully managed the Conservative Party's 1983 election campaign, and was rewarded with an appointment as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but was forced to resign after revelations that his former secretary, Sara Keays, was pregnant with his child, which she later bore and named Flora Keays.
Parkinson subsequently served as Secretary of State for Energy, and later Transport. He resigned that office in 1990, on the same day that Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister. He was created Baron Parkinson in 1992 and served in the House of Lords until his retirement in September 2015.
Parkinson was born in Carnforth, Lancashire, in 1931. He was the son of a railway worker. He was educated at Lancaster Royal Grammar School, a state-run day and boarding school for boys, from where he won a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he read English at Emmanuel College, later switching to read law. He won a Blue as an athlete, competing over 220 and 440 yards. While at university, he was a Labour supporter and for a time was a member of the Labour Party. He did National Service as an NCO in the Royal Air Force. He married Ann Mary Jarvis in 1957. They had three daughters: Mary, Emma and Joanna.
After leaving university, Parkinson worked as a manager for the Metal Box Company, later becoming a consultant. He trained and qualified as a Chartered Accountant and in 1961 founded Parkinson-Hart Securities.
Parkinson was a supporter of Preston North End, and in November 1988 paid a tribute to Tom Finney on This Is Your Life.
In the June 1970 general election Parkinson stood as candidate for Northampton but was not elected. Parkinson was elected as MP for Enfield West at a by-election in November 1970, following the death of Iain Macleod. When that constituency was abolished for the February 1974 general election he was elected for the new South Hertfordshire constituency. After the 1979 General Election, he was made a junior trade minister. In September 1981 he was made Chairman of the Conservative Party, and Paymaster-General with a seat in the cabinet and in 1982 was given the added official title of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Despite his relatively junior status, he was a member of the small War Cabinet which Mrs Thatcher set up to run the Falklands War.
He worked on the Conservative Party's 1983 election campaign, standing in the new Hertsmere constituency after Hertfordshire South's abolition. As a result of his success on the campaign, Thatcher had intended to promote him to Foreign Secretary, but before the election he warned her that this would be unwise as his former secretary, Sara Keays, was carrying his child. Although Thatcher initially remonstrated with him that Anthony Eden's womanising had been no bar on his holding the Foreign Office, she instead appointed him Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
Parkinson was forced to resign on 14 October 1983 after the news of Sara Keays' pregnancy had become public knowledge. The child was christened Flora Keays. Subsequently, as a result of a dispute over child maintenance payments, Parkinson (with Keays' initial consent) was able to gain an injunction in 1993, forbidding the British media from making any reference to their daughter. Following the birth, Parkinson released a statement in which he wished the baby "peace, privacy and a happy life". Flora Keays has learning difficulties and Asperger syndrome and also underwent an operation to remove a brain tumour when she was four, although it is unknown if this either caused or complicated her condition.
This court order was the subject of some controversy until Flora Keays reached her majority at the end of 2001, when the court order expired. Upon Flora turning 18, it was noted in the press that Parkinson had never met his child and presumably had no intention of doing so. While he had assisted with Flora's education and financially her upkeep, it was publicly pointed out that he had not even sent her a birthday card and that her mother assumed that Flora could not ever expect to receive one.
At the time of the revelation of Parkinson's relationship with Sara Keays in 1983, Parkinson made much of what he described as the volume of letters in support that he received. By 2001, however, the media focused more upon Flora and her difficulties than in protecting Parkinson's reputation, so more voices were raised in criticism of Parkinson.
After four years on the back benches, he was appointed Secretary of State for Energy in 1987 (having been tipped as a potential Chancellor of the Exchequer), and for Transport in the July 1989 reshuffle. One of the highlights in the latter job was announcing new main-line rail tunnels across London, called Crossrail. He resigned along with Margaret Thatcher when she was replaced by John Major. He stood down from the House of Commons at the 1992 general election.
After the 1992 elections, he was created Baron Parkinson, of Carnforth, in the County of Lancashire on 29 June 1992. Shortly afterwards he made an appearance on the BBC topical panel show Have I Got News for You. Parkinson, who partnered Paul Merton on the episode, took considerable ribbing (although the injunction prevented any reference to his major scandal) but emerged from the programme intact: even opposing captain and satirist Ian Hislop admitted afterwards that he had come across very well.
Parkinson also published his memoirs in 1992, in which he claimed that, with a determined campaign, Thatcher would have won the second ballot of the Conservative leadership election in 1990 – when her Cabinet had warned her she would lose and persuaded her to stand down.
Parkinson returned to front-line politics when he was made Conservative Party Chairman again by William Hague in June 1997. He retired from this role in 1998 and afterwards kept a low profile, although he was a vice-chairman of the Conservative Way Forward group. He was also the Honorary President of Conservative Friends of Poland.
Parkinson died on 22 January 2016 from cancer. He left nothing in his will for his daughter Flora: in April 2017, it was reported that Sara Keays is preparing to sue Parkinson's estate to continue to gain support for her daughter's 24-hour care as regular payments ceased a few months after Parkinson died.1931–1970: Mr Cecil Parkinson
1970–1981: Mr Cecil Parkinson MP
1981–1992: The Rt Hon. Cecil Parkinson MP
1992: The Rt Hon. Cecil Parkinson
1992–2016: The Rt Hon. The Lord Parkinson PC
He was one of the three Presidents of the UK-based charity Action on Addiction.
Parkinson's affair with Sara Keays was a running joke in the satirical magazine Private Eye for over a decade (and on the satirical TV programme Spitting Image for nearly as long), with the magazine seldom passing up an opportunity to portray Parkinson as having a voracious sexual appetite.
Parkinson was interviewed about the rise of Thatcherism for the 2006 BBC TV documentary series Tory! Tory! Tory!