As senior Tories digested Mr Portillo's surprise admission that he had a homosexual past, the Leader of the Opposition, William Hague, reacted sympathetically and said the revelations did not change his view that the party wanted Mr Portillo back in the Commons.
Some of Mr Hague's allies were privately alarmed at the prospect of the darling of the Thatcherite right returning to Westminster. Even if Mr Portillo is loyal to Mr Hague, aides fear a damaging spate of media speculation that Mr Portillo might challenge for the Tory leadership next year.
Some Tory MPs will encourage Mr Portillo to oust Mr Hague before the general election. "History will show that Alan Clark's death has as much significance for the Conservative Party as John Smith's had for Labour," one Tory frontbencher said last night:
Senior Tories questioned Mr Portillo's judgment in going public now about his homosexual past at Cambridge University 25 years ago. But they believed his attempt to kill off what he called "vile and false rumours" would not stop him winning either the Tory nomination for the by-election, caused by the death of MP Alan Clark, or the contest itself.
Peter Lilley, the Tories former deputy leader, was said to be furious about Mr Portillo's denial of rumours that they once had a gay affair, which gave newspapers the opportunity to publish the unfounded speculation. Mr Lilley, who like Mr Portillo is married, said he found homosexuality "as unappetising as eating cardboard."
Mr Portillo, who lost his Enfield Southgate seat at the 1997 election, said he had always intended to "get things straight, adding: "I'm not going to go back to public life dogged by false rumours."
But the former Defence Secretary, who opposed ending the ban on gays in the military, denied charges of "hypocrisy" by gay-rights campaigners.
Tory MPs said that although the party had become more tolerant of gays, Mr Portillo's admission could reduce his chances of being elected leader.
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