Mr Portillo should remember his rallying call: `Who dares, wins'

Sooner or later even his many admirers are going to start wondering when he is going to get his hands dirty
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THERE IS no evidence that William Hague is a vindictive man. But if he were, there would be a sweet means of revenge now open for his humiliation at the hands of Michael Portillo in the former secretary of state for defence's highly watchable and instructive television series last year.

The series included a memorable sequence in which Mr Portillo, his handsome features etched against a darkening Yorkshire skyline, strode across the moors with the Tory leader trotting behind him, clad in a deeply unsuitable cagoule borrowed, it now turns out, from one of Mr Portillo's camera crew. It was, all the parties now insist, a complete accident. But it rather neatly illustrated the Hague image problem which Mr Portillo, who has turned out to be a dauntingly talented television presenter, discussed so freely on air with the focus group commissioned by the makers of the programme.

The stratagem is this. Mr Hague could ask Mr Portillo, in the wider interests of the party, to put his name forward as a potential candidate in the Newark by-election. He would have to do it privately, of course. Unlike Labour, the Tories still respect the autonomy of local associations and it is not for the leader to dictate whom they should or should not choose as parliamentary candidates.

But, in the now routine fashion of modern politicians, he could discreetly "let it be known" to a couple of newspapers that this was his desire, putting Mr Portillo, who by all accounts is not interested in trying for the seat, firmly on the spot.

The interesting question of who will be the Tory candidate at Newark - after a freakily long interval of well over a year in which there have been no by-elections at all - should not, of course, distract from the reasons, none of them favourable to the Government, why it is taking place.

First, Fiona Jones, the sitting Labour MP, was found guilty by her peers of what looks like more than a mere technical infringement of election law. Second, however, the application of archaic laws to electoral techniques - including mass telephone canvassing and the use of information technology - that were unknown when the laws were framed, have underlined the need for an Electoral Commission of the sort that has long been promoted by Dr David Butler. Finally, Ms Jones's conviction has exposed the fact that the deeply divided Newark Labour Party is, to put it mildly, in a bit of a mess.

But that's just the point. Although it would require a swing to the Tories of 2.9 per cent to win the seat - at a time when the national opinion polls show Labour at comfortably above the national vote share with which it won its historic landslide on 1 May 1997 - the evident disarray of the Labour Party makes the outcome considerably more unpredictable than it might otherwise be.

This is especially the case since the seat was regarded as a pretty safe Tory one before the general election, and since there are bound to be fears about the scale of Labour turnout in the by-election. What's more, the Labour candidate, almost whoever he or she turns out to be, is bound to suffer from a backlash against the party's role in the events that caused the by-election to happen in the first place. The Tories have more than a sporting chance of winning.

That's not all. Hague could, if he chose, present it to Mr Portillo as his solemn duty to his party to make every effort to get back into Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity.

The shrinking of the Tory party in the last election means that the Shadow Cabinet, let alone the tier of politicians just below it, is not so overburdened with talent and charisma that it can afford to do without one of the party's undoubted stars. Who better, for example, to sharpen the Tory attack on the Government by replacing Michael Howard as Shadow foreign secretary after Mr Howard's decision to bow out of politics?

That is not, it seems, how Mr Portillo sees it. Mr Portillo is having rather a nice time at the moment: speaking, writing, thinking, appearing on radio and television, rotating selectively and graciously around the Conservative dinner circuit. By his sheer, if conveniently distant, presence he invites favourable comparison with Mr Hague. Portillo is a man who knows that he can have the pick of safe seats in the run-up to the next general election; he is in no hurry at all to get back. He will not, by all accounts, go for a by-election unless the seat is rock-solid Conservative. Nor does this apparently mean that he intends to remain in Enfield Southgate, where he was cruelly defeated in 1997 by a tactical squeeze on the Liberal Democrats - even though Enfield is one of those seats that the Tories will have to win back if it is to have any serious chance of recovery. And why should he be in a hurry?

Although he would deny it vigorously, by staying out of Parliament until the next general election he can be sure of not being part of the problem if or when the Tories go down to their second defeat, but, rather, a potential solution. It says something about the state of modern politics that, a few ritual taunts from Labour apart, most people accept this situation, which has everything to do with personal ambition and little to do with improving the fortunes of his party, without batting an eyelid.

And yet is it even as clear as the sophisticates claim, that Mr Portillo would be "finished" if he went for Newark and lost? Roy Jenkins did no damage to himself by failing, in the admittedly rather different circumstances of the Warrington by-election in 1981, to win. Nor is the argument that he might not be able to hang on to the seat in the general election quite the clincher it is made out to be.

By standing in and winning the by-election he would incur a massive debt from the Conservative Party, becoming, the day after, an instant star. To have gambled on Newark would have been a gutsy, risky decision, for which he would have to be rewarded, if necessary, by another seat. Wasn't it Portillo who said in the ill-judged party conference speech which marred an otherwise distinguished term as secretary of state for defence: "Who dares, wins"?

In this respect Portillo is an odd mixture: incautious enough to make that speech, fatally comparing the Conservative Party to the SAS, or to install telephones in a safe house in premature anticipation of a leadership election in 1995; too cautious to stand in that election or to risk a parliamentary defeat now. Maybe Newark is not the right choice for such a controversial figure, especially if John Stevens's pro-European breakaway Tories run. But there will be other by-elections.

If Portillo is too controversial to win a closely fought by-election, then it raises questions about his ability to win a general election as party leader. Sooner or later even some of his many admirers among Tory MPs are going to start wondering when he is prepared to get his hands dirty.