Michael Portillo: Charm offensive

Crushed and defeated at the last election, Michael Portillo is back and beaming after his by-election victory. Photographer David Modell charted his triumphal return to the hustings. Introduction by Donald Macintyre
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Overworked terms like charisma do not do Michael Portillo justice. In a Conservative Party notoriously short of stars, Portillo is a vivid, unfogeyish personality who can generate an electricity unmatched by that of any other member of the Shadow Cabinet which he will soon join. But in these pictures, you can detect something else: a certain Castilian hauteur, made palatable by a distinctive charm, but not concealed by it. There is no doubt that Portillo, the son of a fine Spaniard, who was an intellectual, a courier on the Republican side in the civil war and a refugee, believes he has a destiny, to lead his party and become Prime Minister.

His self-belief is a necessary condition of success. But it is not a sufficient one. His confession this year to a youthful homosexual past would not have been risky in any party but his own. But among the party's right, Portillo's natural base, there is a bigoted, homophobic tendency; this is obsolete among the wider electorate, where such private matters couldn't matter less, as the result in Kensington and Chelsea demonstrated.

Portillo's other handicap is, conversely, more of a problem for the electors than the party. In a famously revisionist speech in 1997 Portillo sought a gentler, more liberal and caring image for Conservatism. Yet for all his cosmopolitan modernity and capacity for self-reinvention, he remains for the uncommitted voter a particularly potent symbol of the administration which, in 1997, was more decisively rejected than any other since 1906.

That's why, despite the grace with which he conceded it, his defeat in Enfield Southgate, in the early hours of 2 May 1997, was so iconic. And why there is so little polling evidence that he would make the party more popular by leading it. The most decisive moment of his career was when he pleaded with Margaret Thatcher to stay in office in 1990 and refused to take any part in John Major's leadership campaign. And the British electorate is not going to vote for a Margaret Thatcher again.

Yet this is also what makes it just possible that Portillo could fulfil his ambition. Rather as Neil Kinnock, with a pedigree on the left of his party, was able to start dragging it back to the political centre, so Portillo, as the true heir of Thatcher, could conceivably perform the same act in reverse. If you believe much of the party is still tortured by the trauma of its matricide of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, then Portillo, with none of her blood on his hands, could just be the one politician able to expiate that guilt and finally free his party from its past.

Picture of innocence

Jeffrey Archer's withdrawal from the race to be Mayor of London is on everybody's mind the day before the poll. Portillo's lips are sealed, set in a curious cross of grin and grimace, except to point out that he was never one of the prime movers behind the millionaire novelist's candidacy. In the event, it is Michael Ancram (centre), the party chairman who allowed Archer to stand, who takes the flak.

All ears

During a rare excursion into the council estates off the King's Road, Portillo is relaxed and charming as he chats to a constituent outside a fringe theatre. Soon after the 1997 election debacle, he wrote that the reason for the Conservative government's heavy defeat was that it had been seen as uncaring. So the one-time high priest of Thatcherism made more liberal speeches and presented television programmes in expensive sweaters to show off a softer, wiser attitude. During this campaign, too, Portillo listens rather than lectures. "He behaved like an ex-prisoner," says Modell, "who had done his time, found salvation and wanted to tell the world he had reformed. It was very convincing."

Mothers' pride

Portillo comes across a group of mums in Cadogan Square collecting their children from one of the constituency's many private schools. Where other by-election hopefuls tend to begin with, "Hello, I'm Peter Smith of the Yellow Party and I hope you will vote for me on Thursday", Portillo is more assured. "Hello, I'm Michael Portillo," he starts with an earnest smile, "and if there is anything that I can ever do to help you, please do let me know." The approach works well with these mothers. "He was at his most charming," says Modell, "with rich, early-middle-aged women and men. He flirts with them both, perhaps not consciously, but there is definitely a sexual element to it."

Mid-term blues

Halfway through the campaign, the sheer physical slog of pounding the streets is getting to Portillo and he takes refuge in a cafe, Coffee Republic, on the Earl's Court Road. It is an unscheduled stop-over on what are normally intricately planned days, stretching from the 7.45am mingle with commuters outside local Underground stations - one of the few places Portillo is guaranteed to find more than a handful of voters - to church-hall debates with rivals at 9pm. "He'd been prowling the streets looking for voters and he'd had enough of it all," says Modell. "I asked him one day if he really enjoyed campaigning. He said that he did, not because of the campaign itself, but because of the buzz that surrounds the candidate. I took that to mean that he likes being the centre of attention. On days when there were plenty of reporters following him - some days there were none - his mood would change; he would be more upbeat, his body language more arrogant."

Heads down

Portillo rallies his team of advisers at a strategy meeting. On these occasions, tricky problems of etiquette would be discussed - like whether former constituency MP, Sir Nicholas Scott, who resigned after a series of personal gaffes in 1997, should accompany Portillo on a walkabout.

High office

At campaign headquarters in Chelsea Manor Street, Portillo checks every detail, determined not to suffer another humiliation like the one at Enfield Southgate in 1997. From very early on, Portillo has the constituency activists working flat-out on his behalf. He is a natural leader.

Strong-arm tactics

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell had threatened to stand against Portillo to highlight his hypocrisy, as a member of a homophobic Tory government, towards homosexuals. This was prompted by Portillo's revelation in a newspaper interview that he had had gay experiences. In the end Tatchell contented himself with turning up at crucial moments, but Portillo refused to speak to him. On this occasion, an ever-present burly trainee agent, Michael Morley, employed, some speculated, specifically to deal with Tatchell, keeps trouble at bay. Police refuse to intervene, but the fracas has the effect of scaring away William Hague, who is due to meet Portillo for a set-piece photo-call, but cancels on the pretext that he has been delayed by parliamentary business.

Front bench

At Maggie Jones's restaurant on Kensington Church Street, Portillo takes his daily lunch break from the grind of finding voters to canvas. Each walkabout seldom lasts for more than 30 minutes.

Lord's prayer

Planning strategy with constituency party chairman, Barbara Lord, and a team from Central Office. Debate revolves around how best to present whatever issues are likely to come up.

Puppy love

Portillo pays a visit during his campaign to Harrods, one of the best known landmarks in the constituency. He seems anxious to avoid the looming presence of Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of the store and a key player in the "cash for questions" row. Standing outside Harrods with Tory party chairman Michael Ancram, Portillo is more edgy than usual and also has to contend with the amorous attention of a dog. It is the toughest challenge of the day.

Darkest hour

In one of the constituency's committee rooms - usually a wealthy supporter's parlour - Portillo checks that Tory voters are getting to the polls. He seems concerned that a low turn-out, or much reduced majority, will raise questions about his personal appeal in a party currently devoid of stars.

Last and first

The other 17 candidates are at the count two hours before the result, but Portillo arrives with just 30 minutes to spare. He ignores with equal disdain his mainstream and eccentric rivals, and the press, until the returning officer confirms that Portillo is the new MP for Kensington and Chelsea.

Hair-raising expectations

When election day finally arrives, Portillo's demeanour changes noticeably as he tours the polling stations in the company of heavyweight Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames, in an effort to inspire party workers and encourage voters to get out of their armchairs. The long slog that, according to some sources, began when the sitting MP Alan Clark was on his sick bed, is almost over and the end of his exile from the centre of political power is within sight. "His usual stance during the campaign," says Modell, "had been shoulders back, arms straight, chin drawn in. On polling day, his stance was much more exaggerated, more swaggering, more arrogant, even the quiff of hair on his head, carefully plastered down during the rest of the campaign, appeared to be swelling in anticipation."

Total eclipse

Throughout the campaign Portillo stressed that he would never stand against William Hague in a leadership election, a carefully chosen phrase which leaves open the possibility of him replacing the beleaguered Leader of the Opposition if he is dumped by the party after another election defeat. Hague is on hand with fellow Tory MPs to welcome Portillo, who is accompanied by his wife Carolyn, back to the Palace of Westminster. Refusing to comment on speculation that he is soon to replace Francis Maude as Shadow Chancellor, Portillo stresses that he is enjoying the prospect of getting back up to speed as a backbencher. The expressions of the MPs who have gathered to greet him, however, tell a rather different story.

Office politics

Portillo spoke after his 1997 defeat of the shock of suddenly finding himself waiting at a bus stop after his ministerial car had been withdrawn. The latest step on the ladder of re-evaluation and rehabilitation comes as he is shown his new backbencher's office. It is a suitably modest start for a man who is playing his cards carefully, but at least it had an illustrious former tenant, Portillo's predecessor, Alan Clark. The two men had much in common. Both were favourites of Margaret Thatcher, both served at the Ministry of Defence and both brought colour, glamour and charisma to a party perilously short of all three. Portillo, however, appears unlikely for the time being to be matching Clark's political and personal candour as revealed in his bestselling diaries.

Captions by Peter Stanford

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