Michael Portillo: The great pretender

Michael Portillo leans forward into his audience. His sonorous voice is pleasantly pitched, the glossy quiff glued into submission. His body language is relaxed, tone modulated. A speech on the dangers of joining the euro are shot through with Blairisms - there are "step changes" and even the odd confiding "y'know".

Michael Portillo leans forward into his audience. His sonorous voice is pleasantly pitched, the glossy quiff glued into submission. His body language is relaxed, tone modulated. A speech on the dangers of joining the euro are shot through with Blairisms - there are "step changes" and even the odd confiding "y'know".

In the face of the odd hostile question, he is unfailingly courteous. Those in the audience for last week's Spectator lecture who have followed him from boisterous Thatcher acolyte to perfectly reasonable sort of chap, pinch themselves. Drifting off from his lugubrious account of the perils of tax integration, we remember his delight at being given the poll tax to defend: "Prime Minister, there's nothing I'd rather do"; the "Don't mess with the SAS" speech that caused a commentator from the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to remark, "Here was the sort of hysterical bellicosity which would have been entirely at home from a crazed militarist on the eve of the First World War".

Autres temps, autre Portillo. Hysterical is what Portillo doesn't do any more. He has done his time in the wilderness, undergone his penance and recast himself. He's gone walking in Spain with the cameras, schmoozed in an interview with Peter Mandelson, played at being a hospital porter, done Desert Island Discs and made friends with Madonna. And admitted to a gay past. Right now though, he shows no appetite to revisit these themes. Been there, done that. Now can we please talk about the economy and this government's irresponsible record on fuel tax, on the economy and the awfulness of New Labour?

One remnant of Old Portillo that still remains intact is his mercurial side. He can be immensely charming, very funny and a startling mimic, known to break into excerpts from early Cream albums when the mood takes him. The next day, he will decide that he has, perhaps, given too much away and that he needs to assert his authority. The veil of impenetrable, courteous formality will descend again.

A long-standing friend remarks that this changeability is an essential part of his personality. "When he was defence secretary, he became an absolute pain in the neck - frightfully grand and remote. Then, after the defeat, he became nice and approachable again. The trouble is, you want to wish him well but you can't help feeling that a bit of success will bring out that maddening hauteur again."

Portillo is without doubt the most sniped at, mocked and envied politician in the Tory party. There is an unignorable quality about him - even Tony Blair gave him a dishonourable mention in last week's conference speech when he said that it would take 14 pints to make Portillo look loyal.

The reputation of hungry pretender to power has surrounded him ever since he dallied with a leadership challenge to John Major, only to change his mind, a move that lost him some respect among the Thatcherite diehards. An admiring biography by Michael Gove was entitled Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right. Immensely sensitive to allegations that his real game is to wait for William Hague's defeat and then move on the Conservative leadership, his loyalty has a cloying edge. Asked recently by a friendly journalist what he though the priorities of the Tory party should be in the general election campaign, he replied: "I agree wholeheartedly with William's view of what we have to do." "For instance?" asked the journalist. "There is no difference between us on what has to be done," said Portillo. End of conversation.

His speech last week was the first since he persuaded William Hague to revoke the ill-fated tax guarantee which promised that taxes would fall as a proportion of GDP under a Tory government. Portillo considered the pledge both incredible and not readily comprehensible to voters. His appearances in the House of Commons since he became Shadow Chancellor have had lukewarm reviews. He did not seem to readily embrace the language of figures. Next week's speech in Bournemouth will be a test of how he is shaping up as an opponent to Gordon Brown and whether new, moderate Portillo can remain the star attraction he was in his more fiery incarnation.

The son of Luis Portillo, a Republican refugee from Franco's Spain and a progressive Scottish mother, Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo was an unlikely Conservative - although he insists that his father's idealism was a strong influence. This week, he was stricken by an edgy flash of defensiveness when, in discussing Tory asylum plans on the BBC's Question Time, he was asked about Luis's experiences as a refugee. Taunted by Jenny Tonge, the Liberal Democrat panelist, that his father did not have to endure the Conservatives' planned detention at the port of entry, he shot back: "How do you know?" Two decades in politics have not given Michael Portillo a thick skin.

At Harrow - the County School for Boys, not the public school - his early political heroes were of the left; JFK and Harold Wilson. At 11, he was already acting as a teller in the 1964 general election and had to be forcibly dispatched to bed, where he lay awake, trying to discern the result through the bedroom floor.

At Peterhouse, Cambridge, he became a Tory, strongly influenced by the right-wing history don Maurice Cowling, and an admirer of Enoch Powell. Peterhouse had a gay and bisexual life, conducted through dining and drinking clubs, and Portillo was a popular figure in an atmosphere of studied eccentricity and ritual dissolution. But he maintained a steady relationship with Carolyn Eadie, a fellow north Londoner he had dated since sixth form.

After university, he became a management trainee, but soon broke out to join the Conservative research department in 1975. Appointed as a briefer to Margaret Thatcher during the 1979 election, he was smitten. By her side for her election triumph that year, he is one of the few acolytes she still trusts, not least because he was one of the few who urged her to stay on after her Cabinet had turned against her.

In 1982, Portillo married Carolyn in a quiet ceremony. He was rising fast in the Thatcherite hierachy, enjoying her personal favour and the protection of Cecil Parkinson, becoming his special adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry. The following year, after Parkinson's resignation over his affair with Sara Keays, Portillo was moved to Nigel Lawson's Treasury team.

As Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities, he was at the forefront of the ill-fated poll tax, Minister for Employment, and Defence completed a rounded portfolio. The greasy pole had proven uncommonly easy for Portillo to ascend. The transition to John Major dismayed him, and Major never trusted the exuberant Thatcherite with his uncompromising, headline-grabbing declarations on the evils of the state.

Off-the-cuff remarks about A-levels being for sale in "any other country" caused a furious fuss. By now, the Eurosceptic tensions inside Cabinet had reached an explosive pitch. Major, in an outburst of his own, berated the "bastards" undermining his authority. The "bastards" revelled in the notoriety. After visiting his old friend Peter Lilley in Lilley's Normandy home, Portillo sent his host a glass inscribed, " Non Pater, sed Patria". Portillo ducked the leadership challenge invited by a desperate Major, but refused to support John Redwood, the right's candidate, a dereliction Redwood has never forgiven.

The first of May 1997 changed Portillo profoundly. He knew from his own camp's exit polls that he had lost, even before he was driven to the count to face New Labour's Stephen Twigg. The nervous Twigg was not so well-informed. "Never mind," teased Portillo by way of greeting. "Never mind what?" asked Twigg, momentarily panicked.

The grace with which Portillo bore the disaster stood him in good stead for a rehabilitation. He may even have flirted with throwing in the towel. Approached by the BBC to make a radio programme about what had gone wrong, he submitted an extraordinarily frank draft, stripping away the pieties of politics and detailing the terms of raw power in which politicians see their progress through the ministries. A few weeks later, he changed it to a much less frank version and began the slog of "rediscovering" Britain.

Then, last summer, came That Revelation. Portillo had been considering making it for some time, but was convinced he had no alternative by persistent rumours that he was to be "outed" by an old boyfriend.

The Tory party wears a veneer of modernity over a much more intransigent set of attitudes. Even Portillo himself, opening a short-lived debate on social liberalism at the 1997 party conference, spoke archly of of "people of that orientation" and "sexual indiscretions". His language was no more comfortable in his interview with Ginny Dougary. Afterwards, he admitted to friends that he should have been more frank about the extent and duration of his gay relationships - especially as two former lovers have since emerged - and that he had not discussed the detail of the confession with Carolyn.

The rakish and monied Tory burgers of Kensington and Chelsea accepted his past and gave him an overwhelming endorsement as its candidate to replace the late Alan Clark. How far the Tory party at large shares this tolerance and how comfortable it would be with him as leader is uncertain. He has been replaced as the darling of the constituency rubber-chicken circuit by Ann Widdecombe, who sees herself as the natural popularist successor to Mr Hague.

Carolyn has borne the revelations with fortitude. If she is wounded or embarrassed, there is no sign of it. Tough, intelligent and good company, she has been unstintingly loyal to her husband's political ambitions, while pursuing a career as a City headhunter. She knew of his gay experiences at the start of their relationship. The marriage is childless, though not by choice.

Shares in Portillo Futures are no longer trading as confidently with upcoming Tory MPs as they were in the Major years. There is a discreet court of admirers - Alan Duncan, Nicholas Soames, defence spokesman Richard Ottaway and boisterous junior junior front-bencher John Bercow. He is far too discreet to be seen in a clique.

Michael Brown, the former MP and former acolyte, and now an Independent columnist, notes that Portillo has distanced himself from many of the ur-Thatcherites who saw him as the continuation of Maggie by other means. "He made his reputation as a Thatcherite. But now there is a feeling on the right that he has dumped them. They are asking themselves whether he really meant it all, or whether he got on the bandwagon that was rolling then and is getting on another moderate one now."

The public continues to associate Portillo with the a right-wing agenda. "He's an impressive performer," concedes an inner member of the Blair team, "but it's too late for him to reinvent himself."

Does he still believe he can become leader of the Conservative Party? The strong, analytical side of Portillo is well aware of his party's limitations when it comes to accepting anything beyond the most conventional private life among its leaders. The side which moved him to fight his way back from defeat carries on doggedly, waiting and preparing. The climb continues. But the pole is fighting back.

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