Portillo discovers world's end on streets of SW10

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HE'D DONE Kensington High Street, he'd done the King's Road, he'd even done Holland Park. Yesterday, Michael Portillo finally went low-rent and met the poor burghers of Kensington and Chelsea.

Fulfilling his pledge to represent all sections of society, the former defence secretary took his by-election campaign to that most un-Tory institution, an inner city council estate.

As Peter Tatchell, the gay rights activist, announced that he would not stand in the poll on 25 November, Mr Portillo had one stalker fewer to worry about as he toured the mean streets of SW10. But even the kinder, gentler, former MP wasn't taking any chances. He was escorted by party minders, three police officers and, most intimidatingly of all, Ann Widdecombe.

The doughty Miss Widdecombe accompanied her former colleague in a briefing session with police and residents of the World's End Estate. It is not quite as apocalyptic as its name suggests, but it is as close as Kensington and Chelsea gets to genuine poverty. More Chelsea FC than Chelsea Harbour, its high-rise and low-rise blocks suffer from crime and vandalism. Mr Portillo and the shadow Home Secretary heard its problems first hand.

The prospective Tory candidate nodded earnestly as he was told stories of drug dealers, nuisance neighbours and the limits to police stop and search powers. Martin Kingsford, a former military man and outgoing chief executive of the tenants' management organisation, told of one man visited 33 times by the police who had escaped a serious sentence.

The former defence secretary couldn't resist asking Mr Kingsford what regiment he had served in. "The Royal Engineers. A sapper," he said. Mr Portillo smiled his approval. After a short speech pledging that the Tories would trump the Government on crime, Mr Portillo was off again.

With a corner shop - Harrods - that has an annual turnover bigger than that of most Third World nations, it might be thought that finding a poor person in Kensington and Chelsea is as difficult as finding That Plate in The General Trading Company.

But as the estate is on the only Labour ward in Kensington and Chelsea, Mr Portillo had nearly forgotten this was enemy territory, a fact that one resident, Helen Morris, tried to press home. Mrs Morris, 53, was furious that council staff had toured the estate minutes before Mr Portillo's visit to remove unsightly black rubbish bags and industrial bins from view.

"I think it's disgraceful. We were told that it was because a `very important person' was about to visit. I think we are all as important as him. Why can't they keep it this clean all the time?" she said.

"He swans in and out of here and that's it. All MPs are aliens, you never see them here apart from election time. Makes you sick." Mr Portillo skilfully skirted around Mrs Morris before ending his four-minute walk-about with a quick photo-opportunity next to Doreen Condon.

Sitting outside the Lisboa Coffee Bar, sipping a cuppa, Mrs Condon, 70, told of the problems with tenants chucking rubbish off walkways. Just when she thought it could get no worse, Miss Widdecombe pounced too, but to little effect. "I've been Labour all my life," she said after the pair left. "Those Tories are too bloody stuck up for me."

As Mr Portillo departed the scene, the "meet the people" photographs in the bag, a council worker did his duty. The big rubbish bins reappeared on the World's End Estate.