`I am a Hagueite', preacher Michael tells twin set and pearls revivalist meeting

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The Independent Online
HE WAS always going to be the main attraction, and for the Tory faithful of Kensington and Chelsea it was worth the wait. When he did appear to be anointed as the candidate for this blue-chip Tory constituency, Michael Portillo played all the right notes.

The former defence secretary's march back to the centre of the political stage began with the fervour of a revivalist meeting. Inside the glass and concrete structure of this very modern building at Kensington Town Hall, there were 1,500 Conservatives hankering after old glories, with fond memories of 18 years of untrammelled power. The men wore suits with regimental and old school ties, the women wore twin sets and pearls.

To them, this was the hour for the comeback, and Mr Portillo was the man. The atmosphere inside the room where the selection was taking place was tense, expectant and yet also almost euphoric. It was like being at the first night of a West End production which was always going to be a sure hit.

Mr Portillo had arrived by the back door to avoid the humiliating barracking he had received from gay right activists led by Peter Tatchell at last week's penultimate meeting. The media griped; Mr Tatchell declaimed: "The silent and invisible candidate". But for those inside it did not matter how Mr Portillo arrived, as long as he took centre stage.

The colours were maroon and blue. The stage was maroon, and the prospective candidates all wore blue suits, and many of the heads in the front few rows were blue rinsed.

Mr Portillo was the third to speak after former Tory MP Derek Conway - a whip in John Major's government and a solid family man - and Warwick Lightfoot - a local councillor and former adviser to chancellors Norman Lamont and Nigel Lawson.

Mr Portillo leant forward on the podium and then, through the hush, waved away the fact that he had entered through the back door. "At the penultimate meeting last week," he said, "I tell you I entered through the front door. I have no fear of protesters neither am I in the mood to offer them TV time for advertisements." There was rapturous applause.

Relieved that the first sally had gone so well, Mr Portillo was then at his urbane best. Asked about his leadership ambitions for the Conservative Party, he briefly smiled before responding: "You put me in a difficult position in that I can only answer this question by being totally presumptuous. The only job I am applying for is the chance to represent this constituency."

He straightened up and declared in ringing tones: "I am a Hagueite." There was no ironic laughter from the audience. It may have been that they actually believed him, or simply admired his gall. Mr Portillo continued in the same vein, urging those present to consider William Hague's conference speech which he said, "shredded Tony Blair's".

He continued: "We will show you that we have identical vision... we do not have a cigarette paper between us." And again there was widespread clapping.

Try as he might, the question of his confession to homosexual indiscretions in his youth could not be avoided. Once again he went on the offensive, describing Mr Tatchell, leading the protests outside of gay rights activists against him, as a hypocrite. He said: "He stood as a Labour candidate in 1973 when he denied his sexuality. I look forward to telling him this." Cue more applause.

Those who had appeared at this election committee before Mr Portillo tried their best, but were always perceived as supporting acts. Mr Conway was rotund and reassuring. He took pains to point out: "This is not a stepping stone to greater things. I am not and never shall be a candidate for the leadership."

This attempt at humility was received with just polite applause. The Tories of Kensington and Chelsea regard themselves as the elite, and they were not in a welcoming mood for someone who did not appear to strive for the top.

Mr Lightfoot, a local councillor with limited political experience but high hopes, was perceived as precisely that. His attempt at describing himself as "gregarious and fun loving" was no match for the gravitas of Mr Portillo.

Throughout his speech, the former defence secretary name-dropped unashamedly, mentioning how he had been at a Confederation of British Industry conference in Birmingham just before Tony Blair yesterday, and of his time in the cabinet. It worked. His final selection coming at the first ballot with 63 per cent was a massive landslide.

At the end, the question of his sexuality hardly seemed to matter or appeared to be shrouded in confusion. One local Tory, Mary Swanson, 67, was handed a gay rights leaflet at the entrance to the meeting, She turned to her companion and said: "So he is gay then, goodness me."

After the vote last night, Frank Dobson, Labour challenger for mayor of London, said: "The Tories' decision to select Michael Portillo as their candidate for Kensington and Chelsea shows they have learnt nothing since the general election. They seem to think that the man behind the poll tax and rail privatisation is suitable as an elected representative. I do not. London voters had the sense to reject Michael Portillo once. I hope they will do so again."

Malcolm Bruce, the chairman of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party, said: "Michael Portillo's selection shows how right-wing and out-of-touch with mainstream Britain the Conservative Party has become. It is a telling insight into the self-delusion of the Conservatives that they think Michael Portillo is the knight in shining armour who can rescue them from defeat."

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