Leading Article: After a bad week for the Tories, Mr Portillo's return is a mixed blessing

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK was a remarkable one for British politics. We witnessed the reversal of the old adage that the governing party always suffers a mid-term crisis. Instead, it is the Opposition who have imploded, the collapse in Conservative fortunes having been only slightly relieved by retaining the safe Kensington and Chelsea seat and the return of Michael Portillo to Parliament. The triple whammy of Archer, Ashcroft and Hamilton drove the Tory leadership into paroxysms of paranoia not seen since the darkest days of John Major. Such traumas - and no one even mentioned Europe.

But, in truth, the past is not the Tories' biggest problem. It is remarkable, in fact, how quickly the Major era has subsided into history. The voters are not too stupid to notice that things have changed. What is more worrying for Mr Hague is the dawning realisation that voters are not impressed by his fumbling leadership, his weak Shadow Cabinet or its lacklustre "common sense" policies.

The return of Michael Portillo in this context presents a paradox. His reappearance destabilises Mr Hague, no matter how well-behaved he is, as he will always be seen as a successor in waiting. But Mr Portillo is also a man of intelligence and talent who has, to some extent, reinvented himself, and should prove an effective performer. His return to the Tory front bench, after a brief period of re-acclimatisation, will come not a moment too soon. Mr Hague's team is painfully short of talent.

But the blame does not rest entirely with Mr Hague. However good a parliamentary performer he is, the Tory leader will be unable to persuade the country to lend their support to him until he can demonstrate that his Shadow Cabinet is a "government in waiting". Instead, we are presented with the lacklustre figures of Francis Maude, shadow Chancellor, John Maples, shadow Foreign Secretary, and Andrew Mackay, shadow Northern Ireland Secretary. It is hard to recall three more inept and invisible frontbench politicians; no wonder that there is such dread at the return of Mr Portillo. Theresa May at Education and Angela Browning at Trade and Industry have also failed to live up to their promise. Mr Hague should take a gamble and promote the hungry likes of Liam Fox, Damian Green, Andrew Lansley, Oliver Letwin and Andrew Tyrie.

Mr Hague must also try harder to set out a new and libertarian agenda. This should - and here it will be interesting to see the role taken by Mr Portillo - embrace social as well as economic liberalism. Mr Hague still has an opportunity to outflank the Government in an insistence on the democratic legitimacy of reform in the Lords.

Although it often divides his party, and although this newspaper has fiercely opposed this stance, it would probably also serve Mr Hague to maximise his hostility to the euro. There is a constituency for this and he may as well scoop it; after all, there are few areas where his party has any resonance with the electorate. It is possible that, as in the European elections, it will play especially well in the South-west where the gain of seats from the Liberal Democrat may save Mr Hague from the ignominy of being dispatched after the next election. (The parlour game in Tory ranks is estimating the size of the Labour majority that will allow Mr Hague to cling on to his job; the current favourite figure is 50 seats or less and he survives.)

At this rate, however, Mr Hague will be fortunate to cut the Labour majority very much. Last week was not a good one for the Tories; but nor was it a good one for British politics. A Government like this one needs a strong opposition. But will Mr Portillo make things better or worse?