James Michael Leathes Prior, Baron Prior, PC (11 October 1927 – 12 December 2016), usually known as Jim Prior, was a British Conservative 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 the election of 1974. His party returned to office 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, standing down in 1984 and never returning to government.
Prior was educated at Charterhouse School, before going on to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he earned a first class honours degree in Land economy at Pembroke College. He did military service as an officer in the Royal Norfolk Regiment of the British Army, serving in Germany and India.
He was first elected to Parliament in 1959, and was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from 1970–1972, then Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council until February 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.
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."
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." And 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 September 1981, Prior became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and was in this office until September 1984. 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.
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 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.
He was chairman and later vice-president of the Rural Housing Trust.
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.
In January 1954 Prior married Jane Lywood. They had four children. Prior's oldest son David Prior held the seat of North Norfolk between 1997–2001 and was appointed Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State for NHS Productivity, resulting in his elevation to the peerage in his own right as Baron Prior of Brampton, in May 2015.
Prior died on 12 December 2016 at the age of 89.
After Prior's death MP Keith Simpson, 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."