Born in Newport, Monmouthshire, son of a civil servant, he was educated at what was then Hampton Grammar School, a boys' voluntary aided school in west London (now Hampton School, an independent school) between 1946 and 1948, and thereafter at St Paul's School, a boys' independent school in Barnes, London and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1958 with a BA Degree in History, and four years later with a MSc degree in International Law and Regulations. He did National Service as an army lieutenant and worked for Royal Dutch Shell before being elected as a Member of Parliament at a by-election in March 1968.
Having unsuccessfully contested Poplar in 1964 and Acton in 1966, Baker was first elected to Parliament when he won Acton at a March 1968 by-election, gaining it from Labour following the suicide of Bernard Floud. However, at the 1970 general election he was defeated by Labour's Nigel Spearing. At an ensuing by-election, held on 22 October 1970—caused by the elevation to the Lords (as a life peer) of Quintin Hogg, so that he could become Lord Chancellor after the surprise Conservative victory at the 1970 election—Baker was elected for the safe Conservative seat of St Marylebone in central London. In the parliamentary seat redistribution of the early 1980s, St Marylebone was abolished and Baker was defeated by Peter Brooke for the Conservative nomination at the nearby new safe seat of Cities of London & Westminster. However he successfully obtained nomination at Mole Valley, a safely-Conservative rural seat in Surrey, which he held until his retirement in 1997. He was succeeded there by Sir Paul Beresford.
Baker's first government post was in the Heath ministry; in 1972 he became Parliamentary Secretary at the Civil Service Department, and in 1974 Parliamentary Private Secretary to Edward Heath. Having become closely associated with Heath, he was overlooked for office when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, but in 1981 he was appointed Minister for Information Technology, in the then Department of Trade and Industry. Having been sworn of the Privy Council in the 1984 New Year Honours, he entered the Cabinet as Secretary of State for the Environment in 1985.
Baker served as Secretary of State for Education from 1986 to 1989. His most noted action in his time at the Department of Education was the introduction of the controversial "National Curriculum" through the 1988 Education Act. He also introduced in-service training days for teachers, which became popularly known as "Baker days". At this time Baker was often tipped as a future Conservative leader, including in the 1987 edition of Julian Critchley's biography of Michael Heseltine. Critchley quoted one journalist's witticism "I have seen the future and it smirks" (a reference to the famous line "I have seen the future and it works" written by Lincoln Steffens, an American visitor to Lenin's USSR in 1921). Baker's mannerisms were unpopular with some people: he dressed his hair with Brylcreem, and by the late 1980s he had come to be portrayed by the satirical programme Spitting Image as an slimy slug.
In the July 1989 reshuffle Baker was appointed Chairman of the Conservative Party, with the intention that he should organise a fourth consecutive General Election victory for Margaret Thatcher. He managed to steer the government through the otherwise disastrous local elections of May 1990 by stressing the good results for Conservative "flagship" councils in Westminster and Wandsworth, i.e. supposedly demonstrating that the Poll Tax—a source of great unpopularity for the government—could be a vote-winner for Conservative councils who kept it low. He was still Party Chairman at the time Margaret Thatcher resigned in November 1990.
After the change of regime Baker was promoted to Home Secretary. His time at the Home Office was marred by prison riots, and by bad publicity over the introduction of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
After his term of office he was also found (M v Home Office 1994) to have been in contempt of court for having deported a man back to Zaire in 1991, in breach of an interim injunction and while proceedings were pending. "It would be a black day for the rule of law and the liberty of the subject," the Court of Appeal ruled, "if ministers were not accountable to the courts for their personal actions." This was the first time the courts had reached such a finding against a minister for exercise of Prerogative Powers, something previously thought to be impossible.
After the 1992 general election Baker left the government rather than accept demotion to the job of Welsh Secretary. He was appointed a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) on 13 April 1992. He proposed the Loyal Address in the Queen's Speech debate on 6 May 1992, following the general election. He chose not to stand for re-election to the House of Commons in 1997, and on 16 June was created a Lord Temporal as Baron Baker of Dorking, of Iford in the County of East Sussex.
He was interviewed in 2012 as part of The History of Parliament's oral history project.
Baker was co-founder along with the late Ronald Dearing of the Baker Dearing Trust, an educational trust set up to promote the establishment of University Technical Colleges in England as part of the free school programme. He is also Chair of the independent education charity Edge Foundation which campaigns for a coherent, unified and holistic education for all young people.
In 2013 Baker was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Education from Plymouth University.
Until 1995 Baker lived in Station Road in the village of Betchworth, 4 miles (6.4 km) east of Dorking. He now lives in the hamlet of Iford near Lewes, East Sussex.
In 2005 he published a book on King George IV, George IV: A Life in Caricature, followed by King George III: A Life in Caricature in 2007;(Thames & Hudson). Other publications include several compilations of poetry, a history of political cartoons and his autobiography.
In 2006 Lord Baker announced that he was introducing a bill into the House of Lords to address the West Lothian question. This would prevent Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on legislation which affects England alone as a result of devolution to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.
Baker's son, Oswin, is a former chair of the Greenwich and Woolwich Labour Party and a former business partner of Simon Danczuk, the disgraced ex-Labour MP for Rochdale.
Baker was interviewed about the rise of Thatcherism for the 2006 BBC TV documentary series Tory! Tory! Tory!. Singer-songwriter Bill Pritchard criticized Baker from the left in his 1989 pop song "Kenneth Baker". The lyrics include a litany of names, in which Baker, along with Margaret Thatcher and several other world figures from that period, is accused of being "a sick man." Baker was notably portrayed as a slug in the political satire television show Spitting Image.1934–1968: Mr Kenneth Baker
1968–1970: Mr Kenneth Baker MP
1970: Mr Kenneth Baker
1970–1984: Mr Kenneth Baker MP
1984–1992: The Right Honourable Kenneth Baker MP
1992–1997: The Right Honourable Kenneth Baker CH MP
1997: The Right Honourable Kenneth Baker CH
1997–: The Right Honourable The Lord Baker of Dorking CH PC