In Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson observes that the "Studland peninsula is well known as the only place where you can see all seven British reptiles – the grass snake, smooth snake, adder, slow worm, common lizard, sand lizard and Michael Portillo". It's a nice line, and when the book was first published in 1995, doubtless generated much guffawing at Portillo's expense. Were Bryson to update the book now, however, he'd need a new target.
Portillo's rehabilitation in the eyes of those who once considered him the embodiment both of political slipperiness and Tory smugness paradoxically began at the instant of his very public humiliation, when he lost his seat in the 1997 general election. Last night's documentary, Portillo on Thatcher: the Lady's Not for Spurning, in which Portillo investigated Margaret Thatcher's legacy to the Tories, marked the latest step in that rehabilitation. He was self-deprecating to a fault, cheerfully conceding that he had been the object of such widespread loathing (if stopping disappointingly short of admitting that the loathing was on the whole richly deserved) that his personal defeat in Enfield Southgate in 1997, announced at 2am on election night, became the totemic moment in the New Labour landslide – "were you up for Portillo?" and all that.
I suppose the truth about Portillo is that, pace Bryson, he wasn't such a heel back then, and he's not such a paragon of kindly wisdom now. At any rate, there were one or two moments in The Lady's Not for Spurning when in talking to former high-ranking Tories he seemed to be orchestrating a kind of mass, wobble-jowled snigger at poor old John Major. Come to think of it, maybe the collective noun for former high-ranking Tories should be "a wobbling jowl". Whatever, sniggerer-in-chief was David Mellor, who suggested that Major's persecution complex was nicely encapsulated by the famous line "in Carry On Caesar... 'Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me'". This was a fine example, to add to his newspaper columns about football, of the opera-loving Mellor trying a little too hard to tap into lowbrow popular culture. As any man in the street knows, it was Carry On Cleo, not Carry On Caesar.
In government, of course, Mellor fell foul no less than Portillo of the rabid news hounds of the tabloid press, which makes it sweetly ironic that those two, of all ex-politicians, should now take the media shilling. Poachers turned gamekeepers or vice versa? I'm not sure. But what did strike me watching this documentary was that, pace Bryson again, Mellor has and perhaps always had rather more reptilian qualities than Portillo. Still, as David Attenborough keeps telling us, it's not such a bad thing to be a reptile. At least they don't beat about the bush. And Mellor stuck his fangs with typical directness into Iain Duncan Smith. "The most lamentable [leadership] choice of any political party in living memory," he said, which sounds harsh, but is probably fair.
As well as some inevitable score-settling, The Lady's Not for Spurning contained plenty of shrewd insight into the collapse of the Tories after Thatcher, Portillo himself, one of the arch-Thatcherites, recognising that the rot set in before she was ousted, when it became easier to understand "what she was against than what she was for". The problem, he added, was that by then her dragons were all dead. And being a conviction politician also made her a confrontation politician, which meant that she had to start inventing further dragons to slay. Catastrophically, she chose domestic rates as one, precipitating the hated poll tax, and Europe as the other, unleashing in-fighting that scars the Conservative Party to this day.
Similarly enduring, however, was the "disaster" of removing her in office, according to Chris Patten. It left "a poison" in the party that has still not been entirely let. I was impressed, though, with David Cameron's contribution. Where Thatcher has been the albatross on the shoulder of successive Tory leaders, or perhaps the elephant in the room, (and don't worry, I'll be getting to Attenborough soon), the present leader seems to be the first able to acknowledge her influence without seeming in thrall to her personality. She swept into power in 1979 with a dynamic, modernising message, he said, and that's exactly what he wants to emulate, except with principally a social rather than an economic agenda. I wonder what he'll have to look back on when those jowls start to wobble?
Anyway, it would be remiss to begin a column with a line about indigenous British reptiles and not to pay further homage to Life in Cold Blood, which gets harder by the week to tear your eyes from. The spectacle of an African rock python eating an antelope will live with me for at least as long as the python lives on the antelope – about a year – while the sight of two king cobras locked in combat was extraordinary, and more than a little evocative of the House of Commons.