Portillo now prepares to claim his inheritance

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The Independent Online
HE'S SWABBED the floors of a hospital, presented daytime TV shows, even proved trains in Spain are mainly all the same.

Like a joy-rider serving a community service order, Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo has spent the past two years desperately trying to prove he has Done His Time.

Now, with the death of Alan Clark offering the chance to return to the Commons before Christmas, the moment his enemies have dreaded has arrived. The king over the water is preparing to come home. With the Kensington and Chelsea plum dangling before him, the former defence secretary is poised for a return to frontline politics almost as dramatic as his exit.

The biggest casualty of Labour's landslide, his defeat in Enfield Southgate in 1997 altered the landscape of the Tory party and allowed William Hague to become leader. Portaloo's Waterloo symbolised more than any other event the scale of Tony Blair's victory. "Were you up for Portillo?" became such a catchphrase that it was used as the title of a book on the election.

Since that spectacular fall from grace, Mr Portillo has worked hard to persuade voters he is a kinder, gentler Tory. The Man with no Shame transformed himself into a socially liberal, rounded individual.

The politician who as defence secretary maintained the bar on gays in the military said homosexuality should be no bar to high office. His comments raised eyebrows of critics who had propagated rumours, totally unsubstantiated, about his own sexuality, but Mr Portillo appeared sincere.

Yet at every stage the lost leader of the Thatcherite right has combined pledges of loyalty to Mr Hague with attempts to undermine him. Most memorable was a scene from a BBC documentary in which the dapper Spaniard interviewed a bedraggled Mr Hague on top of a moor. The Tory leader, in a sodden anorak, looked exactly like the trainspotter his critics believed him to be.

From comments on the single currency to support for the BBC director- general Greg Dyke, the man dubbed a "bastard" by John Major for his disloyalty has kept himself on Westminster's radar screen.

Mr Portillo has matinee-idol looks; Mr Hague would be lucky to get a walk-on part in a Pampers ad. While Bill Bloke is devising ways to abseil his way into our hearts, Mr Portillo's fans say he exudes charisma and gravitas. Like his Scrabble-winning middle name, the former Defence Secretary has that all-important X-factor.

His rehabilitation was proved most forcefully at last year's Tory conference, when delegates queued for two hours to hear him speak. Most notably, it was Mr Portillo who was sat next to Baroness Thatcher at a special Conservative Way Forward dinner in her honour.

But the quest for a parliamentary seat was the main event. Ideally, he had wanted a Sussex or Surrey seat but the 10,000 majority of Ken and Chel is likely to prove hard to resist. Yet Mr Portillo is a consummate planner and is more than aware he has only one shot at his return to Westminster.

Yesterday, amid speculation that Kensington and Chelsea Tories wanted him to stand, Mr Portillo played the perfect gentleman.

"The isn't the time to be thinking about the next member. It's a time to be thinking about the last member," he said. Expertly judged, it was measured and dignified stuff.

Ironically, Alan Clark, in his history of the Tory party, judged that Mr Portillo's failure to challenge Mr Major in 1995 had blown his chances for good. If Kensington and Chelsea's Tories decide that Mr Portillo's portering days are well and truly over, then maybe even the brilliant Clark may one day be proved wrong.