Politics: Portillo takes first steps on the big comeback

To the voters of Enfield Southgate - and a large part of the country - he may be yesterday's man. But to the Conservative Party he is media- friendly "good fun". Fran Abrams looks at Michael Portillo's plans for a come-back.
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The Independent Online
There will be tea and scones with the blue rinse ladies, there will be speeches and, no doubt, there will be a certain amount of adulation.

In addition, of course, there will be the chance for the former Secretary of State for Defence to raise his head above the parapet after months in the political wilderness. This week he will embark on a whirlwind tour of the country, taking in venues in Scotland and Yorkshire as well as in the rest of England.

"He's going to attract members, he's the sort of guy the media will talk to and he raises money. He's good fun," said a party spokesman

Mr Portillo lost to Labour's Stephen Twigg in the general election on 1 May with a massive 17.4 per cent swing against him. However, Conservative Central Office still regards him as one of the party's most popular figures.

The official line is that the tour is a thing to be greatly welcomed - indeed, it has been organised through the speakers' department at the party's Smith Square headquarters.

But in some quite corners, there must surely be an inkling of doubt.

Michael Heseltine famously built up a following after resigning from Margaret Thatcher's government by touring the country eating bad creme caramel and working the party faithful into a frenzy with his post-prandial bon mots.

So, is Mr Portillo's plan to bring the Conservatives back in from the cold, or simply himself? After all, if he were in Parliament now he might well be leading his party, and he has made no secret of the fact that he intends to return to Westminster after a decent interval.

A party spokesman admitted that some would be bound to believe the latter.

"I think some people will play it as that. That's just a fact of life. But fundamentally he is doing it because he is a popular man within the Conservative Party.

"There's a demand for him within the constituencies."

Mr Portillo approached the party to offer his services after six months in which he had made only a very few public appearances.

He had barely been seen at all until his reincarnation at the party conference in Blackpool, where he made a speech in which he astonished his audience by apologising for the last government's mistakes and asking them to embrace single mothers and gays.

Then, last week, he made another appearance in Winchester, where he went canvassing with his former ministerial colleague Gerry Malone.

Mr Malone is fighting a by-election after losing his seat by two votes to the Liberal Democrats and then successfully challenging the returning officer's verdict in court.

While there, Mr Portillo took the opportunity to show his new-found humility once more. Asked when he planned to return to Parliament, he replied: "If you have been defeated and pop up the next day asking to be re-elected, people will say you couldn't abide by the verdict of the electorate."

Speaking of his tour, he denied embarking on a pre-emptive leadership strike.

"That did not even occur to me," he said.

There was some mystery surrounding the tour last night, though. Although Central Office was happy to confirm it, Mr Portillo's office refused to give details despite repeated calls from The Independent.

Inquiries from other Conservative sources who phoned friends of Mr Portillo have met with a similar response.

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