Outed - Portillo is one of the good guys

Chris Blackhurst hears the strange tale of the 'Scallywag' editor, the computer disks and the happy home life of the Defence Secretary
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The Independent Online
Shock! Horror! Sensation! Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, is a happily married man after all, who cares about his family and his constituents.

Simon Regan, the former editor of scurrilous manazine Scallywag, and source of dark rumours about Mr Portillo's private life, which spread like wildfire through London's chattering classes and beyond, now admits he may have got him wrong.

This astonishing recantation, delivered exclusively to the Independent on Sunday over several pints and more than a few fags in the bar of the Lord Nelson, the central London pub Mr Regan now runs, may have profound political implications.

It represents a major step on the road to rehabilitating Mr Portillo, who was left reeling by criticism of his swaggering "SAS" speech at the Conservative Party conference in 1995 and the rowdy behaviour of a private party in his offices overlooking a military parade on Horseguards attended by Princess Margaret last summer.

After keeping his head down, Mr Portillo has started raising his profile again. The public embracing of the school cadet corps initiative, the announcement on a taxpayer-funded replacement for the royal yacht and, last night, a speech lauding the notable Tory wets, Harold Macmillan and Chris Patten, all point to a comeback.

To give him an extra push, Mr Regan makes the extraordinary admission that "he seems a happily married man, kind to his constituents and caring".

What began, according to the more than a little louche Mr Regan, with a tip from another journalist - in time-honoured tradition he will not say who - that Mr Portillo's private life deserved scrutiny, ended in dramatic fashion at 10.30 last Saturday night. Special Branch officers swooped on the Lord Nelson and the caravan in the back garden in which the former editor, who caused a sensation by claiming, wrongly, that John Major was having an affair with his Downing Street cook, now lives.

In the caravan, Scotland Yard's finest found 12 computer disks containing 7,000 items of personal correspondence and files from Mr Portillo's parliamentary office. The police made their move after Mr Regan had tried to sell the disks to the Sunday Times. He was hauled off to Belgravia police station and questioned for 20 hours about what the paper said was "a very serious breach of security".

The thought of Mr Regan, an endearingly shambolic 54-year-old, penetrating the files of Britain's military chief, was hard to fathom. As ever, the explanation was simple: a computer technician was cleaning up the disks as part of a maintenance contract with Mr Portillo's office, he saw what was on them and like any good Scallywag reader, contacted Mr Regan.

London society salons, and readers of Scallywag and its version on the Internet - since closing last year, the magazine's back issues and new pieces have been available on the Web, attracting 17,000 browsers a day - held their collective breath. Here, surely, was the proof they had long been promised.

Alas, it is not to be. The letters reveal a man who takes the time and trouble to write considered replies to his constituents, who maintains a close circle of mostly married friends, gives black tie dinner parties, has fond memories of his old Harrow County school, reveres his late Spanish Republican father and is passionate about bull-fighting.

True, there are letters to Peterhouse, his old Cambridge college, claimed in Scallywag to be at the centre of a gay security services-related network, but they are mainly about arranging an annual punting trip on the River Cam. Details of Mr Portillo's holidays, also the subject of much attention in Scallywag, including one famously long and lurid feature about a trip to the Gazelle D'Or hotel in Morocco, are also in the files.

Again, instead of the camp bachelors, claimed to be in attendance, the others on the trip are mainly married couples. The Gazelle D'Or is there, but of the alleged services provided by the local Berber boys there is not even a whisper.

There are some curious pieces of eccentricity. Mr Portillo's nickname for his wife, Carolyn, among his holiday companions is apparently the Chief Accountant. She keeps a tab on all their bills and proportions them out when they get back home.

As a career politician, Mr Portillo cannot resist politician-speak, so a letter to friends aranging a date for punting talks of "polling stations" and a "landslide victory" for those favouring Saturday, 29 August.

It is all harmless, mundane stuff, nothing like the picture painted in Scallywag. Mr Regan is devastated: "I was looking for shit and I did not find any."

Mr Regan added: "By and large, I'm disappointed. When I got them, I thought, here are 7,000 items I can retire on. But there is nothing in the files that says, 'hello, darling, I'm missing you badly'."

Mr Regan was released without charge. Some of the letters may find their way by circuitous means on to the Internet, where people can form their own judgement. In the meantime, Mr Regan is left to contemplate the scoop that never was.

Part of his depression can be explained by his failure to use part of the money from selling the disks to a newspaper, to stand in the general election against another of his prime foes, Julian Lewis, the former deputy head of research at Tory Central Office and the party's candidate for the New Forest. Like Mr Portillo, Mr Lewis is a right-winger. And like Mr Portillo, he has little to fear at present from a chastened Simon Regan.