Leading Article: As Mr Portillo once said, who dares wins

BRITISH POLITICS needs Michael Portillo. This is not a sentiment that The Independent might have found itself sharing a few years ago. Mr Portillo's performances at Conservative Party conferences played well with a dwindling band of elderly activists, but for most of the rest of us they were toe-curling embarrassments, maladroit and bordering on the xenophobic. To the voters Mr Portillo was, Neil Hamilton aside, the most potent symbol of the arrogance that enveloped the Conservatives during their last years. There were many who were glad that they "stayed up for Portillo" to see him lose his seat in May 1997.

But since that chastening moment Mr Portillo has been carefully reinventing himself, with thoughtful speeches and novel television series. We - and the selectors of Kensington and Chelsea - are presented with a new Michael Portillo. The new Portillo has swabbed the floors of a hospital; is at ease with people who want to pursue lifestyles that deviate from the ideal of the nuclear family; and is (at last) honest about his own sexuality. We may be dimly discerning the shape of a more tolerant, modernised, "new" Toryism that, oddly, embodies some of the best of the values of what used to be called the Tory wets. Such a philosophy is certainly more welcome than William Hague's drift into crude, even cruel, moral authoritarianism, which we have seen in recent weeks.

Mr Portillo is able, intelligent and charismatic. He may now add humility to those qualities. If his new ideas are converted into new policies, he will provide a much-needed boost to the intellectual and political abilities of the Tory front bench. We should be grateful for a more effective Opposition. But William Hague should be worried. Mr Portillo has dared to challenge his party's prejudices. And, as he once infamously declared: who dares wins.

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