Mr Portillo is everywhere - except in the one place he wants to be

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MICHAEL PORTILLO has been everywhere this week. On Tuesday night, on BBC2, he was touring Spain exuding his new-look, intelligent charm. Last night you may have caught him on BBC1's Question Time. In between, he has been presenting Channel 4's Powerhouse, its thrice-weekly political programme. In the space of four days, prominent appearances on three terrestrial channels out of five is good going. It makes those other Tory exiles, Edwina Currie and David Mellor, seem shy and retiring.

There is, though, a big difference between Portillo and the other politicians- turned-media personalities. Mellor and co thrive on their new lives in the spotlight. They have become broadcasters, and are probably treated with greater respect and awe as media celebrities than they ever were as politicians.

This is not the attitude of Portillo. Although he is pretty good in front of the cameras, he does not see performing on television as his vocation. In contrast to the others, he performs for reasons of expediency. It keeps him in the public eye and helps to pay the bills. What is more, the broad media exposure permits the cultivation of a more rounded, softer image. But Portillo's ubiquity is all a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Briefly, I had first-hand experience of this interim phase in the Portillo career, appearing as one of his guests on the Powerhouse programme. It was curious watching him, in another item on the programme, as the neutral interviewer of a discussion on Europe, challenging the Conservative backbencher John Bercow about his Euroscepticism. Most revealingly, though, at the end of the programme Portillo did not seem to have the adrenaline racing around him which most presenters have after navigating their way through half an hour of live television. Probably he was thinking: "What am I doing here interviewing a couple of insignificant journalists?"

As the closing signature tune played, he put it more politely by observing to myself and Peter Hitchens of The Express: "Politics is a strange world." I asked him the predictable question about whether he found it easier being on the other side of the microphone. Instead of answering directly he compared the interviewer's art with performing in the Commons. "Presenting is difficult because so much is going on at the same time. But then I guess you would find speaking at the Dispatch Box very nerve-racking. It depends on what you are used to. Mind you, it is impossible ever to be entirely relaxed about performing on the front bench. The eerie silence of your own back benches in moments of difficulty is a real challenge." Here was someone in the midst of a week of television exposure that many politicians would die for, reflecting within seconds of a live performance on the different arena of the Commons. He wants to get back there, and I suspect that he would like to get back there soon.

This is not just "tittle-tattle" to complement New Labour's soap opera of recent weeks. It matters. In the choreography of Conservative politics between now and the election, the position of Portillo is highly significant. For even outside the Commons, Portillo is seen as a credible, charismatic rival to William Hague. Inside the Commons, the breathing down Hague's neck would get much heavier. In terms of the dynamics of the Tory party it is highly significant, too. Hague's only credible rival is from the right, limiting his room for manoeuvre on the wider political spectrum.

In a way that is unfair to both of them, Hague has already suffered from the "Portillo effect", an inevitable consequence of a leader with a low poll-rating and a charismatic figure on the sidelines. For a Channel 4 series Portillo presented last September (Channel 4 seems to be intent on rehabilitating the great man single-handedly), Hague was interviewed in what appeared to be a scene from Monty Python. The interview looked as though it was taking place on an isolated, windswept moor. At any moment it seemed as though John Cleese would appear, to announce: "And now for something completely different." As the gales of wind swept around them, Portillo asked, in effect, why so many people had concluded that Hague was not up to the job. Afterwards, many articles were written on Portillo's cheek in humiliating his leader in such an overt fashion. In fact a producer on the programme tells me that it was Hague's adviser who suggested the unflattering location and that Portillo did not want to ask the embarrassing questions. No matter; as with his Messiah-like appearances at the fringes of the party conference, in which he stressed the importance of loyalty, every Portillo move will be judged as preliminary stages in his bid for the leadership.

More importantly, Portillo's looming presence hems Hague in. You can bet that every move he makes is calculated partly to keep Portillo at bay. That means that even if he were to wake up in the middle of the night and decide on a move towards the centre ground, he would not be able to make it. In opposition, where symbolism is more important than policy- making, a return to the shadow cabinet of Ken Clarke would boost the Tories at the polls more than anything Hague has said or done as leader. Clarke has said he would be happy to return before the election. But what would Hague have to do or say to bring about such an important moment? And what "clear blue water" would arise between himself and Portillo as a result? It will not happen.

Instead Hague will promote the "British Way" in the coming weeks as relentlessly as Blair presents his Third Way. To put it politely, both Ways have a certain ideological flexibility. For example, Hague will soon drop the idea he provocatively floated in his party conference speech, of an English parliament. But the British Way suggests an embrace of tradition and an opposition to change, most specifically within Europe, which is unlikely to reassure the centrists in the party.

It will be very much to Portillo's liking, though. Indeed, if Portillo had invented it, the Times and Telegraph would have heralded the British Way as a profound new philosophy. Every time Portillo made a banal speech in the mid-Nineties on public spending or poorly qualified foreigners, the right-wing broadsheets knelt at the altar and christened him the new "philosopher king". Portillo has the same gift Tony Blair had in opposition. He can make the vacuous appear deeply serious. In opposition, though not in government, this is a great gift. Tory voters, looking at those grim opinion polls, will be aware of it.

So will William Hague, struggling still to get a sympathetic press. He knows that while Portillo may seem to have been everywhere this week, he has in reality been everywhere except where he really wants to be.

Steve Richards is political editor of the `New Statesman'