Michael who? Portillo without prejudice

Sara Bonisteel, a young US writer, hadn't heard of Kensington's Tory hopeful until we sent her to trail him last week
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The Independent Online
I'M THE FIRST to admit it. Americans don't care much about foreign affairs. And the UK's affairs are no exception. Sure we know Tony Blair, and most can remember Margaret Thatcher as the big-haired chum of Ronald Reagan, but that's as far as it goes. Michael Portillo? Honestly, I had no clue.

But this week I followed Portillo on the campaign trail, prospecting for a jewel in the Conservative crown - Alan Clark's former seat in Kensington and Chelsea.

To most Britons the very utterance of his name incites savage hatred or fierce loyalty, but the real-life Portillo is mundane. The former Defence Secretary has embarked on a comeback that promised all the drama and excitement of a prize fight. Yet after a few initial Peter Tatchell sightings, the campaign has simmered down, becoming what the party workers call "quietly efficient".

"Good morning, I'm Michael Portillo. How do you do?" It is 7.45am Wednesday morning, and Mr Portillo is braving the odd shower to catch voters on their way to work. The candidate is an awkwardly wooden man with a broad smile. Amid the commuters at Notting Hill Gate, he could easily be mistaken for a banker or solicitor. Only the supporters with large blue rosettes give him away.

This is the political meet and greet. But I am amused and surprised when the darling of the Right coughs into his hand and without a second thought, shakes the hand of a passing voter who has removed her glove.

"I do like meeting people," he says. "I particularly like meeting young people - children at their young ages."

However, the young do not flock to the Tory party, so Michael Portillo must resign himself to meeting his elders. He and his canvassers stop numerous pensioners, for whom his standard phrase is: "If I can ever be of help, please let me know."

Small talk comes as second nature. Yet the only time he seems truly engaged is when the talk turns to Spain. He goes so far as to seek out a Spanish-speaking couple during a ride on a London bus, engaging them in impressive conversation.

Though Mr Portillo is a politician, he doesn't scream it. I'm used to the take-charge kind. So when Mr Portillo asks one of his staff to figure out which bus to take from Sloane Square to the Tories' Smith Square HQ, I am confused. Ostensibly, the man who once took charge of Britain's defence should be able to figure out which London bus to take. We end up walking.

Thursday morning at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and for once there is an audible media buzz as William Hague drops by to lend his support. Mr Portillo tries to put to rest speculation on a future leadership bid. "My purpose [if elected]," he reassures the press, "is to give my support and loyalty to William Hague."

Their body language gives more away. Mr Hague, slightly taller, and equally as mysterious to this young American, coolly greets Mr Portillo at the hospital. He also does more of the talking. Upon his departure, Hague asks if Portillo will be joining him. When the offer is refused, Hague replies stiffly: "Right, see you soon."

Back at the Kensington helm, Mr Portillo continues on his round to meet the locals. "This is a very special constituency with a lot of extraordinary people in it, a lot of remarkable institutions and also a lot of people who have problems of all sorts," he says.

Lunch at a local pub, and a stroll around the neighbourhood helps Mr Portillo put his finger on the pulse of the district. But I wonder what that pulse is. Friday morning I ask: "Mr Portillo, why should a resident vote for you?" He replies: "That's more or less covered in my literature." Thanks a lot.