The transformation of Michael Portillo: Less power - but a lot more fun

Michael Portillo nearly became the leader of the Tory party. Then he put politics behind him and headed off to TV. He tells Ian Burrell how his life has changed
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Michael Portillo, sitting in the study of his elegant Westminster townhouse, suddenly interrupts his discourse on the relative merits of careers in the worlds of media and politics by pinning himself to the back of his chair and pulling a face reminiscent of a pantomime dame.

Eyes bulging, mouth wide open, a picture of shock and awe, Portillo is reliving the haunting memory of being "Paxoed" on Newsnight. "When you are being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman you are the prisoner in the dock, assumed guilty unless proved innocent, under intense pressure, on the defensive. There are very few people who can look relaxed in that position.

"People who can, like Tony Blair and David Cameron, are one in a thousand, and that's why they are so good at it. On the whole, if I was being attacked by a John Humphrys or a Jeremy Paxman, I was kind of... tense and withdrawn."

Things are different these days for Portillo now that he fills out the "occupation" box on official forms with the words "writer and broadcaster". In great demand as a presenter of radio and television documentaries, as a reality TV contestant and as a columnist for The Sunday Times, he has transformed his public persona from that of mistrusted political careerist to self-effacing but credible television personality.

"People have said to me, 'Oh you are much nicer making documentaries than you were in politics.' So I should be. If you are making a documentary, you are having fun. You are not under any pressure, normally."

The "full name" that he inscribes on official forms is as showbiz as you could imagine. Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo began his media career at the age of eight when he took part in a commercial for Ribena. By the time he was 14, he had ambitions as a film director, planning to shoot a production of Macbeth when he was a pupil at Harrow County Boys school. In the role of Lady Macduff, Portillo had cast one Diane Abbott of Harrow County Girls school.

The film was never made, for lack of jumble-sale revenue, but for the past four years Abbott, now the Labour MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington, has been Portillo's friend and fellow pundit on Andrew Neil's political television show This Week.

In the weeks to come, Portillo's screen presence will increase markedly. ITV has persuaded this former strutting peacock of 1980s Conservatism to align himself with a rare creature of "the most intense blue, with just an orange eye and a yellow streak". In a programme called Extinct, Portillo will champion the hyacinth macaw in a contest to persuade viewers to help save threatened species. Rival celebrities will argue the case for orang-utans, pandas and other breeds.

"It's quite a fussy bird. It will only make its nest in the mondavi tree, and then only if that tree is 70 years old or more," says Portillo, who has been to the Pantanal marshlands of Brazil to make the wildlife equivalent of a party political broadcast.

The day in May 1997 when Labour came to power is still associated with the question: "Were you still up for Portillo?" - a reference to the moment at the Enfield Southgate count when the MP heard news of his defeat. Portillo was then endangered himself, but survived. And he's clearly warming to the cause of the hyacinth macaw. "If you come across it in captivity, it will walk all over you, and search your hair for ticks, which is very affectionate. The hyacinth macaw and its partner have sex three or four times a day even when not trying to conceive. They spend a lot of time canoodling in the tree."

The film adds to Portillo's portfolio of wildlife work. He has recorded Natural Despots, a Radio 4 documentary on the tyrannical female meerkats in the Kalahari (a subtle reference to Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet) and BBC2's Portillo Goes Wild in Spain, in which he sought out vultures and lynxes in his father's homeland.

He has bookshelves lined with ornithological tomes, and is planning a twitcher's holiday in Costa Rica with his wife. But he makes no claim to be a naturalist. "I'm not getting any more expert as I go along. You always have a sense of being a bit of a fraud, talking about a subject you don't know anything about. The only defence you can make is that you are learning and that, through you, the viewer is learning."

Once considered so haughty that Private Eye sought to deflate him by dubbing him "Portaloo", he is acutely conscious of his public profile. Directors need not cajole him into making amusingly embarrassing scenes; Portillo is often the deliberate protagonist of them, so anxious is he to be seen as comfortable with being the butt of a joke. "There was an intrinsic conflict in the [Spanish] wildlife film, which was that I thought it was necessary to take the piss out of myself. I insisted in the last scene that the panama hat I had worn all the way through should blow off and fall into the water, to show that I understood my place in this world. There was a danger that people would think I was getting grand ideas about myself."

The former Secretary of State for Defence also made a bizarre attempt to paraglide with vultures. "The Portillo bird didn't so much fly as plummet. I blame the thermals myself." It is to be hoped that the hyacinth macaw will fare better.

Another forthcoming TV project will deal with very different subject matter: the criminal justice system. In BBC2's The Verdict, Portillo will be one of a dozen "celebrity" jurors required to consider evidence at a fictional trial, in which the judge and barristers are qualified but the witnesses and defendant are actors.

The jurors will be locked away for four days and filmed Big Brother-style. "I have never served on a jury because MPs were exempted - or banned, I think. I'm looking to see if we can recreate the dynamics of a real jury. One of the things I've noticed about reality television is that it wholly absorbs its subject matter.

"If George Galloway hadn't been immersed for three weeks in the Big Brother house, he probably wouldn't have licked milk out of Rula Lenska's lap. But, for that moment, getting on in the Big Brother house was all that mattered to him."

Three years ago, Portillo spent a week living the life of a single mother in Merseyside. He says he is so keen to "immerse" himself in the new reality show that he will not be using his mobile phone during his "jury" service.

He is no recent convert to reality TV. He reveals that while still an MP he lobbied David Blunkett and Charles Clarke, when they were Home Secretary, to be allowed to spend a week in prison, on camera. "I thought it would be extremely interesting to build some sort of relationship with prisoners and find out what they thought about, why they were there... how things could be better. We had two prison governors who were keen to do it and were quite keen to show off their prisons, but in the end the Home Office wouldn't sanction it." Portillo is keen to resurrect the idea.

More immediately, he has a Radio 4 series later this month called The Things That We Forgot To Remember. It will examine such conundrums as why we remember the horror of the Somme but not the great British military victories that followed, at Amiens and St Quentin Canal. "These are the biggest victories the British will ever win because the British Army was never bigger before or since," Portillo says.

Then there is his musical work. He enjoyed the nerve-racking experience of presenting live from the BBC Proms - "What can be more unpredictable than a maestro?" He is also talking to Opera North about directing a production.

So well regarded is he in broadcasting that he was among the judges for last week's Grierson awards, which recognise British documentary-making. In 2005, he compèred the event.

Portillo was once one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite lieutenants. Even after returning to the House of Commons in 1999, he dreamt of becoming party leader, but he was beaten by Iain Duncan Smith. His new career in the media might have brought a belated popularity, but he has tasted life on the opposite side of the Westminster village green and he is deeply conscious of his lack of influence on British public life.

"For someone like me, making a documentary - I don't kid myself. There's no influence at all. What I do is entertainment. I would even say much the same about the column I write in The Sunday Times. I don't kid myself for a moment that this has any influence on anybody. Politics is being on the stage, and journalism is being in the wings. I don't think you can get away from that. I don't know if I achieved anything in politics, but politics does give you the potential to achieve things. Blair took us to war in Iraq. It may have been the right thing, it may have been the wrong thing, but the fact is that an individual made a choice and made a difference, which no number of documentaries would do."

In his Sunday Times articles, Portillo writes insightfully and forcefully about party politics and foreign policy. His editor, John Witherow, might be disturbed to discover that his star columnist believes he is producing so much fish-and-chip wrapping. "I don't say that it's not possible for me to cause a stir, but I don't kid myself that I could shape policy. If I say modernising the Conservative Party is a good thing, which I do, I dare say that encourages the people who are busy modernising. But the people opposing it probably think, 'My God, with Portillo on board that's another good reason to oppose it.'"

Indeed, he believes that the muscle of the entire political lobby is overstated. "I think [political journalists] have the power to destroy. There are quite a lot of politicians who have not survived what the press has said about them. Then there are politicians who decide to allow the media to have power. For instance, if you are running a campaign... is it 'Sarah's Law'? [the News of the World campaign] - if politicians decide to respond to pressure in the media, then you could say the media has power. But let's take an example of the opposite. Blair, through thick and thin, has stuck to Iraq. So, in politics you have examples of individuals - if they choose to and have the guts to do it - making a difference on their own. Whereas the media will only make a difference if people respond to it."

So he has less power - but is he happier? "I'm very happy with what I do now. The point of comparison is with being in opposition, which I hated. I didn't do it very well, didn't like it and was very happy to have left. Having failed to become leader of the Conservative Party, I felt that it was difficult to find a role. I was kind of in the way."

He doesn't even know if he's a paid-up Tory. "I don't think I do bridge the two worlds [media and politics]. I'm not active or influential within the Conservative Party. I'm not even sure that I'm a member of the Conservative Party any more. I belong to about six Conservative associations, and I can't promise you that one of my standing orders isn't still extant, but I've made a conscious effort to withdraw from party politics."

After a quarter of a century of a highly structured existence, he enjoys the freedom of being "a cork bobbing on the tide of fortune", happy to acknowledge that "what I do now is entertainment". He argues that reality television is such an important genre in broadcasting that he cannot afford to turn his back on it.

But he does not want to be seen as just a figure of fun. "I still enjoy being asked to make a serious comment about politics or write a serious column. It's only human nature. Every now and then you like a sign that people take you seriously."