Leading Article: Now Mr Portillo must prove that he really is a caring Conservative

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The Independent Culture
IF MICHAEL Portillo does, as most observers expect, win the by- election in Kensington and Chelsea for the Tories, then the phrase, "Did you stay up for Portillo?" may take on a whole new meaning. Instead of his name being synonymous with the defeat of a discredited, sleazy and arrogant Tory government, Mr Portillo may instead find himself, as he seems to wish, symbolising the rebirth of his party.

In many respects, we should readily acknowledge that the Conservative Party, and British politics, desperately need Michael Portillo in Parliament. Although there is some talent in their denuded ranks, the Tories can boast few "big beasts". Various slightly comical attempts to relaunch Mr Hague serve only to underline his vulnerability. Figures who are recognised and respected by the public, such as Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine, languish in internal exile.

Mr Hague should bring Mr Portillo into his Shadow Cabinet at the earliest opportunity, since his team is certainly lacking in ballast. Some of the newer parliamentarians who have been promoted, such as Theresa May at Education and Angela Browning at Trade and Industry, have yet to make their mark. More disappointingly the shadow Foreign Secretary, John Maples, has been virtually invisible - and when he has emerged, he has done more harm to his party than good. The shadow Chancellor, Francis Maude, has invited criticism with his plan to reduce the share of the national income taken by income tax, come what may.

Mr Portillo is a substantial figure, highly intelligent, articulate, with a thoughtful approach to policy. The Independent does not share his scepticism about the euro but we can respect the passion with which he puts the case against it and the cogency of the arguments he brings to the debate.

The new Portillo would have us believe that he is no longer "this boot- wearing, cold-hearted Tory". Now words such as "compassionate" and "caring" drop from those lips as readily as they would from the "wets" whose views he once disdained. But despite his TV appearances as a hospital porter, and all the considered speeches, Mr Portillo still has to put some flesh on the bones of his compassion. We might even challenge him to put some clear water between the old and the new Portillos.

As we report today, for example, there is no sign that Mr Portillo is prepared to recant his reactionary views on the right of gay people to serve their country in the military. We need to know precisely where Mr Portillo stands on reducing the age of consent for gay men. We should also be interested to learn whether he has a more compassionate attitude to the plight of asylum-seekers than does his colleague Ann Widdecombe. In short, and despite the television programmes and the considered speeches he has made, we are still unsure whether this this ambitious man, once the anointed heir to Margaret Thatcher, is really as compassionate as he claims to be.

Mr Portillo is not a man renowned for his political judgement. We must hope his time away from Westminster has made him more wise, as well as more humble.

If there is now a new maturity as well as a new compassion, then perhaps we really are looking at a new Portillo. And, if he can combine social liberalism with his brand of economic liberalism, he may yet be the saviour of his party. But we are yet to be convinced.

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