OBITUARY : Robert Key (1945-2023)
Robert Key was born on 22 April 1945, the son of Maurice Key who went on to become the Bishop of Truro and Joan Dence. As a child he was educated at Salisbury Cathedral School and then Sherborne School before going to Clare College at Cambridge University. As a youngster he was walking with a group of friends when a wartime mine was detonated, killing five of the group. He told the Commons in his final Parliamentary speech in 2009:
“On Friday 13 May 1955, when I was 10 years old, I was on Swanage beach in Dorset with some 20 other children of about the same age. We were doing what children on a beach on a Friday afternoon in May do-building sandcastles, digging holes in the sand, making dams and so on. I was building my castle with a chap called Richard Dunstan: five of my friends were digging holes, and then one of them found a tin. He thought that it was Spam, or something really exotic-yes, Spam was exotic in 1955. He was wrestling to move it, because it was lodged between two rocks. He got out a shoehorn but could not break the tin open. The boys stood back, and were seen throwing things at it.
My friend and I got bored. We turned round. We had our backs to our friends, and were about the same distance from them as I am from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when there was a huge explosion. We were blown into the sea, and lived. Five of my friends died. Five British children were blown up by a British mine on a British beach, within my living memory, and the living memory of many other people. It was an extraordinary thing. It happened in the middle of the 1955 general election. The front page of the following day’s edition of The Daily Telegraph carried a story with the headline, “4 Boys Die, One Missing in Explosion”. Below that, smaller headlines stated, “Big Crater Torn in Beach” and “Wartime Mine Theory”. There was not much theory involved for the five who were killed, or for the two of us who were the luckiest people alive. I still think that I am the luckiest person alive in this House.”
Key went on to teach economics at Harrow School between 1969 and 1983, although contested the Parliamentary constituency of Holborn and St Pancras South in 1979. He won the constituency of Salisbury in 1983 and he remained the MP until his retirement at the 2010 General Election. He made his maiden speech on 30 June 1983 focusing on technology.
Whilst at Westminster he was supportive of those who were suffering from AIDS, becoming the chair of the all-party Aids group. He served for some years as a PPS to firstly Alick Buchanan-Smith and then to Chris Patten, becoming a Government Minister for the first time in October 1990 when he took on the role of Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities. He supported Margaret Thatcher in the leadership election that took place a few weeks after his appointment but was kept on by John Major following his election victory. Major appointed Key to become Minister of State at the Department of National Heritage following the 1992 General Election, then he was moved to the Department of Transport the following year. He left Ministerial office in June 1994, but was appointed by William Hague as a frontbench spokesperson on defence following the 1997 General Election. Although selected to stand again at the 2010 General Election, problems with osteoarthritis meant that he decided to stand down.
Key married Susan Irvine in 1968 and they had four children, one of whom died in infancy. Robert Key died on 3 February 2023 at the age of 77.