Portillo pleads his case to the Tory core voters

FOR ALL his protestations that he has no designs on the Tory leadership, a throwaway remark by Michael Portillo yesterday suggests that he still has a grand sense of his destiny.

Travelling by train to Wellingborough, Northamptonshire on the first day of his campaign to re-enter political life, Mr Portillo reflected on his decision to come clean about his homosexual experiences at Cambridge.

"I think it will be of greater interest to historians than journalists," he said, without a shade of irony.

Travelling second class, and sans entourage, it was the only hint of the arrogant former Tory darling - apart from a well-smoothed quiff. His chief concern now was the tabloids. Despite his best efforts to pre-empt them, he knew that as he spoke they would be trying to track down past lovers. But it was not himself he was worried for, he stressed: "I have always felt very comfortable with the whole thing," he said. "I am sorry for the people who will be dug out because they are not used to the press."

Still he said resignedly, even if someone did spill the beans, he was happy to have "knocked the rumour-mongers on the head". "I was fed up with it and I didn't see why I should have to go through my whole career with it. There was an opportunity. While you are out of parliament no- one can demand your resignation."

Nevertheless, Mr Portillo's postbag was bulging yesterday. He seized on an envelope which bore handwriting he recognised. He smiled as he scanned the contents, before stuffing it in his briefcase.

"I'm very struck by some of the people who have come out with very favourable comments," he said. "Nigel Lawson, Chris Patten, Tim Yeo, Malcolm Rifkind and William Hague - and I am sure there will be others. I really am touched by that. Quite a few people have stopped me on the street and said, `well done'."

Mr Portillo may be quietly confident that the plum Kensington and Chelsea seat will soon be his, but he is a canny enough operator to know that a little modesty is in order.

"If they thought I was in any way taking them for granted that would do me enormous damage, so I don't take it for granted by any means," he said. "There will be lots of good candidates and they are under no obligation to choose me."

He is also aware that his tough stance on gays in the army while Defence Secretary now smacks of hypocrisy. "If ministers allowed their judgement on matters of national security to be formed by casual experiences they have had at university, that would be a very poor state of affairs," he said, smoothly.

At Wellingborough Station Mr Portillo was met by Peter Bone, the cheery prospective parliamentary candidate in this marginal Labour seat (187 majority) and the fuschia-clad Lady Fry, chairman of the local Conservative Association. The visit was scheduled months ago, but no one guessed what a big event it would become.

Jean Woodcock, 83, a lifelong Tory voter, was hosting a coffee morning. The shortbread was baked and her Spanish greeting ("Encantanda" meaning "I'm charmed to meet you") well rehearsed. Mr Portillo's recent admissions did not phase her. "As I've got older I've become more liberal," she said. "The man is solid gold. He's married, happily it seems."

Presumably satisfied that his admission had not upset the Tory grassroots, he began his speech with what was a rather daring anecdote. He said he was glad to meet people beforehand because he lived in fear of introductions: "I remember one time when a lady was fumbling with my CV," he said already eliciting sniggers from his audience.

"She said, `I just want to tell you all about Michael Portillo's biological details. Oh no, I'm sorry. I mean I just want to tell you about all the positions Michael Portillo has been in'." He paused. "That didn't sound much better."

The ladies of Wellingborough loved him. And so did the men. As one elderly gentleman told him: "We very much hope you will be able to ginger up Mr Hague and provide some opposition."

Careful. You could almost hear the alarm bells ringing in Mr Portillo's head. It was time for some more modesty: "I would love to be there to help.But let me tell you, if I was there it isn't going to be the difference between night and day. It's just one more pair of willing hands to join the team."