By the time he became MP for Cheltenham in 1964, Douglas Dodds-Parker had already had a more eventful life than most. After graduating from Oxford in 1930 he entered the colonial Sudan Political Service and when war broke out he became a rising star in the Special Operations Executive’s daring intelligence operations. He helped Emperor Haile Selassie oust the Italians from Abyssinia, organised agents and collaborated with communist partisans in the Mediterranean to pave the way for invasion and ended up in Eisenhower’s allied headquarters in Paris. Bizarrely, Dodds-Parker, by now a colonel, won no recognition from Britain. France however awarded him the high honours of the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur, perhaps laying the ground for his later pro-European politics.
Dodds-Parker entered Parliament at the first attempt, defending the Tory seat of Banbury near his native Oxford against the Labour landslide of 1945. The next year he married his American wife Aileen. When the Conservatives returned to power, he initially turned down an invitation to become Churchill’s Parliamentary Private Secretary but joined the government in 1953 as a junior minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under Churchill and continued under his successor Eden. He toured the world and hobnobbed with everyone from Nehru to Marilyn Monroe but his textbook ministerial career went horribly wrong. In 1956 Egyptian President Nasser’s takeover of the critical Suez Canal prompted a secret deal between Israel, Britain and France to invade Egypt and capture the canal. Dodds-Parker, the military tactician and expert North Africa hand, was horrified but too junior to influence events. Worse still, he had the job of defending Eden’s doomed policy and denying collusion with Israel not only to an outraged Commons during his boss Selwyn Lloyd’s frequent absences but also to his many American family friends. He stayed loyal to his government at war, fatally damaging his own credibility. But senior Tories noticed his obvious ambivalence and when Macmillan replaced the disgraced Eden, he was sacked. He quit the Commons at the next election and later penned his own account of events, bitterly titled Political Eunuch.
When the Cheltenham seat fell vacant, Douglas was tempted back into the fray, perhaps because Macmillan had by then been replaced as Prime Minister by the more congenial Sir Alec Douglas-Home. After what he describes as a ‘slight commotion that a local candidate might be more suitable’, he contested the 1964 General Election, winning with a comfortable 5,240 majority over Labour with the Liberals – now led at national level by the charismatic radical Jo Grimond – in a relatively strong third place. Nationally the Tories had finally lost power to Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. The defeated party elected a new leader, the pro-European Edward Heath, and Dodds-Parker was soon heading delegations to the Council of Europe and European Parliament.
It’s an interesting coincidence that a second MP with experience of military intelligence – after Frank Russell in the 1890s – should now represent the new home of the UK’s codebreaking and electronic intelligence agency which had been based at Bletchley Park in the second world war and had discreetly arrived in Cheltenham in the early 1950s under the innocuous name Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ.
Dodds-Parker made frequent interventions in Parliament, especially on European and foreign affairs, but was obviously frustrated in opposition and often railed furiously against the ‘Socialists’ in government. The 1966 General Election nevertheless saw Labour, again with no Liberal competition, reaching their highest ever share of the vote in Cheltenham with nearly 47% – only 2,615 votes from victory.
Cheltenham’s early declaration in the 1970 General Election allowed Dodds-Parker to exuberantly predict a Tory victory on national TV. He was right but his own result was actually pretty poor. The Tory vote slipped again to just over 50%. His majority over Labour was largely thanks to the returning Liberals again dividing the opposition vote.
After Heath’s national referendum confirmed British membership of the European Community, Dodds-Parker found himself at the heart of the complex entry negotiations – bizarrely reuniting him with former communist partisans from his war days. But Heath’s turbulent reign at Number Ten became mired in industrial confrontation with the miners and Dodds-Parker, finally recognised with a knighthood in 1973, had already announced his decision to stand down when Heath called and lost a surprise General Election in February 1974.
The Tory share of the vote in Cheltenham fell again to just 43%, its lowest since Daniel Lipson held the seat as an independent in the 1940s. More ominously for the Tories, Liberal Freddie Rodger had swept into second place ahead of Labour with his party’s highest share of the vote since the 1920s. This was part of the record six million votes cast nationwide for the party which had an energetic new leader in Jeremy Thorpe and a radical new ‘community politics’ based approach at local level which had delivered a string of spectacular by-election victories.
Forever under the shadow of Suez, Dodds-Parker never returned to ministerial office. He finally did retire when Harold Wilson called the October 1974 election. It could have been a risky moment for the Conservatives in Cheltenham. Labour had nearly won the growing urban constituency in 1966 but it was now the reviving Liberals who posed a fresh threat to whoever took up the Tory baton. Dodds-Parker must count as one of Cheltenham’s most distinguished if controversial MPs, a player not just in British national politics but on the international stage, but his successor would have to work hard at home to hold the seat.