Interview: The hair apparent
Ruthless, arrogant, heartless. Michael Portillo's been called a lot of things, few of them polite. But we've rarely glimpsed the man behind the tanned facade and the architect, let's face it, of the greatest quiff in political history
Right, now we've got all that out of the way, on to more important business. Your hair, Michael. Truly, it's a magnificent thing. Not so much a common- or-garden quiff, more the swell of a great ocean wave that rises thrillingly at the front then crashes midway along your scalp. Tell me, Michael, do you go to bed with a big Carmen roller in it at night? "I do not!" A quick, steamy shhhh with the Babyliss curling tongs first thing in the morning, then? "No." L'Oreal Studio Line Styling Mousse (firm hold)? `No.' So, your hair is an entirely natural phenomenon, then? "Yes. IT IS!"
This, actually, is quite an important snippet of information. Because, as I can see now, the big question about Michael Portillo isn't, actually, when or how he'll come back. Even though he is no longer even an MP, he manages to somehow remain a big beast in the jungle. And big beasts will inevitably pounce, even though they might have to circle around for a bit, sniffing the air beforehand. As this much is certain, let us address the bigger question: Who is Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo, exactly?
Astonishingly, for someone who was so high-profile for so long - 11 conspicuous, often controversial years as a Tory minister - it's not as if we've ever had any glimpses into his inner life. Or emotional life. It's not as if he'd ever do Hello!, although he's had the odd invite. "A letter, once, I think." And you turned them down? You could have got two weeks in The Seychelles out of it, you silly boy! He says: "Not to be in is cheap at the price, I think."
He's been called a lot of things over the years. He's been called "arrogant" and "ruthless" and "heartless" and, as John Major once saw it, "a bastard". There have been dark rumours about his private life, including the suggestion that he's gay. How come, Michael? "You'd better ask the people who put them around." Where is that inner man? Michael, what makes you cry? "Oh, lots of things. I'm quite a sentimental person. It may be something in my life. It may be a film." What films have you cried at? "Have you seen Life is Beautiful?" No. Neither, it transpires, has he.
We meet just off Oxford street at the offices of Kerr McGee Oil PLC. Since famously losing his Enfield Southgate seat to Stephen Twigg at the general election (did you stay up for Portillo? YES! YES!), he's been working here part-time as a consultant. He meets me in reception. He is beautifully mannered. He has a beautiful, oboe-like voice. He is beautifully dressed: a crisp, possibly Italian denim-coloured shirt; navy, possibly Italian trousers with a pleat that continues into the turn-ups, then cleverly turns back up with them. He is beautifully dashing, too. I am quite overcome in a Barbara Cartland sort-of-way. The dark eyes. The strong features. The muscular torso. The lips that are bee-stung not by one bee, but its mum and grandma and auntie and pretty much the whole of the hive. Plus there is that little exotic something extra that is Spanish. Do you feel Spanish, Michael? "I certainly feel half-Spanish," he says. Does that mean you're entitled to half a nap after lunch? "Good question!" he replies, with such flattering enthusiasm that I'm as won over as he'd intended. "I can certainly adapt to having lunch at 3pm."
In short, he's a Tory you could actually sleep with, which is quite something, because there aren't many of those about.
I ask Michael what it feels like to have been constantly described as the most beautiful man in British politics. He says: "Well, I try to think everything that's written about me is crap, because then I can cope when horrible things are written."
You are lovely looking, though.
"So are you."
"Well, you have oodles of personality."
Bloody hell, I'm not that plain.
At least he can't charm his way out of everything.
Aside from being a consultant at Kerr McGee, he has also been keeping himself busy with journalism (book reviews, mostly) and presenting television programmes. He likes doing TV. He likes the "team-work", which is what, he says, he misses most about politics. I tell him there's a job going on Blue Peter. "Is there?" Are you any good at knocking up Christmas decorations with two old coat-hangers and a bit of tinsel? "NO. I fear I wouldn't be good at that at all. I do have a creative urge, but not in that way." His most recent excursion into telly was, actually, a very moving, lyrical, perhaps even revealing programme in the BBC's Great Railway Journeys Of The World series, in which he travelled across Spain, exploring his ancestry while taking in the life of his late father, Luis. Luis was a Spanish liberal academic who fled Franco at the end of the civil war and came to this country in 1939. If Portillo has a heart, and you want to get to it, then Luis might be a good place to start.
Michael adored his father. He wrote poetry. "When I think of him, the fingers of one hand are striking his forehead, tapping rhythms of sonnets that form in his mind." He could also "cut animals from pieces of paper, freehand". He recently died of Alzheimer's, which was painful to watch. "The first indication was at lunch one day, when he suddenly shouted something unintelligible then looked rather sheepish and embarrassed." Still, by this time, Michael had seen his father witness many humiliations. Having been a much-respected Professor of Civil Law at Salamanca University, he arrived here as a penniless refugee whose qualifications were worth nothing and, who, initially, could speak no English and had to take a job sweeping the roads for 10 bob a week. Although he went on to translating jobs in the civil service, and to marry Michael's mother (Cora Waldegrave Blyth, a Scottish teacher) and settle in north London, he was always very much the intellectual-in-exile.
"I wasn't born when he had to sweep the streets, so I don't know if he felt humiliated by that. But, when I was a young boy, I do remember a gas man coming round and I don't know what went wrong, but there was some altercation and the gasman called my father `a bloody foreigner', and my father was not only indignant at the time but years afterwards he would refer back to it. I'm sure that was because he felt humiliated." And did you? "Yes. I felt terrible about it." Do you fear humiliation? "Yes."
You'd think that, given his father's experience, Michael would have grown up sympathising with the underdog, but instead he opted to react the opposite way. He would not be humiliated. He would be worth something. He would not be "a bloody foreigner", always on the outside. He would be among the rulers, rather than the ruled. He would have power and he would exert it.
Ironically, of course, it all ended in the most terrible humiliation on the night of 1 May 1996. "Actually, what I find humiliating might not be what you expect. I didn't feel humiliated when I was defeated. I felt I was part of the democratic process, and I believe in the democratic process. For as long as I was elected, I had legitimacy, then when I wasn't, I didn't. I do fear humiliation, but it might not come in the shape others might think."
What shape does it come in, then? "It comes when you know you've let yourself down. That is real humiliation." An example? "Ah, hmm, well..." You see? He just won't let you get to the bottom of him.
As a young boy, Michael was, in fact, a socialist like his father. At primary school, he had a picture of Harold Wilson on his wall. At 11, he was "running committee rooms for the Labour Party". His transformation came at Cambridge University, where he studied history. "I remember when I first got there someone I knew had been invited to a meeting of the Cambridge University Conservative Association, and I was shocked. The idea of being Conservative at that age was shocking to me. But by the time I left, I was Conservative." Why? "Partly the influence of friends, partly the influence of those who taught me, partly the political events of the time, which were the two miners strikes of 1972 and 1974." There was little doubt, at that time, that the Tories were the coming thing. And Michael needed to be a part of that.
He has always been the supreme career politician. I'm not saying he's unprincipled. Just that the career pulled along everything else. He would happily push through Tory policy, even when he personally didn't agree with it. "I remember when a Scottish MP told me they'd just introduced the poll tax in Scotland, and it was going to come to England. I said to him I thought that completely daft. The reasons it was introduced in Scotland were all to do with Scotland. They'd had a re-rating. We hadn't. It seemed to me that to make a register of the entire population of England was going to be impossible, and un-Conservative." But you were the Minister in charge of the poll tax here! "Yes. And you will find, on the record, speeches I made staunchly defending it." How could you? "I don't know if it's apparent to people, but a party is not a group of people all of whom think the same things. It's a group of people who are as different as any other people but come together on a programme that they have in common. And obviously that programme involves compromises." So, no, not someone who'd go out on a limb for his own, individual beliefs.
His ascent was dizzyingly swift. He started in the party's research department in 1976, and soon had the job of meeting Mrs Thatcher first thing every morning, to take her through that day's press. The two adored each other. "Every morning I would tell her all the unhelpful things that had been written in the press. One day, when I read her yet another series of lamentable stories, she said to me: `You are battering me. Every day you are battering me. Just because I'm leader of the Opposition doesn't mean I don't need a bit of encouragement.' I said: `Oh, Mrs Thatcher, I'm so sorry. I thought it was my job. I thought I was to tell you the bad things. I thought I had to put myself in the place of a journalist, and be like Fred Emery (presenter of Panorama at the time).' Immediately, she went into this very feminine, flirtatious mood and said: `Oh, no. You're not like Fred Emery. He's not clever.'" I don't think Michael has a huge repertoire of stories against himself.
He went on to become Minister for Transport, Minister for Local Government, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, then Employment and Defence, marrying his teenage sweetheart, Carolyn, who is now a City head-hunter, along the way. They live near Victoria, in central London, and seem to have quite a lifestyle. Neither can cook. "What do we make for dinner? Reservations!" They have no children because Carolyn had cancer in 1984, and the illness left her unable to have any. Has this been painful for them? "It's something you just accept. In general, whatever life has served up, I haven't found hard to take." Still, he worries for the future. He fears loneliness, he says. Loneliness? "I know I can't be without company for any period at all, and as I don't have children, who knows what the future holds. To be lonely in your old age must be a terrible thing."
He insists that, when he returns, it will probably be as a lowly backbencher. He adds, even, that he considers the leadership now closed to him. "Everything is moving on. There are new people coming through. I'm not being seen in Parliament every day and being tested ... my political career is slipping behind ..."
Of course, this is absolute nonsense. It even, possibly, serves him well to be outside of things for a few years. It enables him to dissociate himself from the current bunch of losers, and then make a triumphant, king-over-the-water sort of return at a later date. I don't think there is much doubt about this. It's what he's been programmed to do, perhaps at the expense of many other things. So, no, these are not Michael Portillo's wilderness years. He's just, as I said, sniffing the air.
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