The pain from Spain

MICHAEL PORTILLO: The Future of the Right by Michael Gove, Fourth Estate pounds 20
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MICHAEL Portillo received a right-wing education at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where Maurice Cowling taught that elites should shake off guilt and doubt and arm themselves with the weapons of "irony, geniality and malice". Michael Gove, a BBC reporter and Portillo's first biographer, quotes this philosophy with approval, but fails to put it into practice. Although he displays a geniality towards his subject which borders on the unctuous, there is little wit and not one flash of enmity in 344 pages. Difficult questions about Portillo's politics and private life are evaded and sometimes not asked at all.

Take the Defence Secretary's relationship with his father. Luis Portillo was a Spanish socialist who escaped from Franco's armies and found asylum in London in 1939. If he had been deported back to Spain, he would have been executed by the triumphant fascists and his British-born son would not be here now to help us see the virtues of free markets and strong states.

Given his history, you would expect Portillo to make one exception to his conservatism and favour liberal refugee laws. But last year, when he attacked the "masochists" and "cynics'' who dare to criticise the institutions of Crown, Church and State, he included in his list of destructive mockers refugees with "anti-establishment views", whom Britain had foolishly encouraged to "settle here and develop their ideas". Radicals such as his father, for example, should never have been allowed into the country. You would expect too that a biographer would have at least noticed this faintly Oedipal passage in Portillo's most famous speech. Gove does not mention it.

There are other niggles. Gove accepts without criticism Portillo's support for the death penalty. Later he praises the help Portillo gave to Engin Raghip - a constituent and one of the three men falsely accused of killing PC Keith Blakelock - in getting the young man's murder conviction overturned. But it does not seem to occur to Gove that if capital punishment had been restored, Raghip would have been dead long before his case was reviewed by the Court of Appeal and all Portillo's efforts would have been futile.

These omissions highlight a wider problem. Michael Portillo is a young member of the Cabinet who has held no great office. If he is "The Future of the Right", if, indeed, it is worth your shelling out pounds 20 for his life story, it must be because his ideas are important. Gove's long plod through the minutiae of Portillo's spell at the Conservative Research Department and his roles as under-secretary for this and junior minister for that is broken up by discussions of the ideology of the new right in general and Portillo in particular. But Gove is so uncritical and leaves so many gaps, only those who share his prejudices will read him without irritation.

There is almost nothing on economics. The 1979 to 1982 recession, which Margaret Thatcher's monetarism exacerbated, is not mentioned, and there is just one paragraph on the crash of the late 1980s which finished the Lawson boom. Readers who remember either or both may wonder whether Gove's - and, by extension, Portillo's - faith in Conservative economic orthodoxy is at best naive.

Gove does talk about constitutional reform but cannot understand why so many people want to open up the possibility of democratic regional initiatives and stop our lives being dominated by Westminster politicians such as, well, Michael Portillo. Hopelessly at sea, he agrees with Portillo's view that it is all a Labour swindle designed to strengthen the power of Labour voting areas and weaken the potency of the nation state, our "pragmatic bulwark against idealistic, universalising notions like socialism". Gove should talk to the die-hard Labour MPs who oppose any change to the Westminster system because it would stop some imaginary future government imposing socialism in one country.

Above all, he cannot quite explain why Michael Portillo is suddenly the coming man. It just seems self-evident to Gove, as well as the largely Thatcherite Press, that he is a clever and cultivated politician who must be a contender for Downing Street. But this assumption makes parts of the biography distinctly odd. Portillo is always presented as clever, even when he supports the poll tax and claims that foreign students buy their A levels. Michael Heseltine, by contrast, is shown as a lightweight even though he opposed the poll tax from the beginning and would never come out with anything quite so bovine as Portillo's attack on foreign students.

The charge against Portillo is that his foreign policy would be to isolate Britain from Europe and send us grovelling to an indifferent United States. Domestic policy for many would mean low wages, insecurity and privatised welfare. There would be stiff punishments for those who stepped out of line and anyone who asked for a little more democracy and a few more rights would be treated as a subversive threatening the break-up of Britain. It's a dismal prospect, which Gove - despite writing clearly and researching prodigiously - fails to make attractive.