Portillo wins Kensington's hearts and minds by a landslide

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL PORTILLO made a triumphant return to front- line politics last night as he clinched the Conservative nomination for Kensington and Chelsea by a landslide.

Thirty months after his spectacular fall from grace at the general election, the former defence secretary secured the candidacy by 63 per cent of the vote on the first ballot. He easily beat his three rivals for the nomination - the former Tory MP Derek Conway, Mark Francois, an Essex activist, and Warwick Lightfoot, a local councillor - after a polished performance on the hustings.

The Tory party confirmed last night that the by-election, which was triggered by the death of Alan Clark, would be held on 25 November, ensuring a short, three-week campaign.

Mr Portillo's admission of "homosexual experiences" in his youth appeared not to have damaged him as he won over the 1,200 party members gathered at Kensington Town Hall in west London. He defused the issue by apologising for the protests staged outside the meeting by Peter Tatchell's gay rights group, OutRage!

More importantly, the man seen by many Thatcherites as the lost leader of the Tory right impressed the meeting with a staunch declaration of loyalty to his party leader, William Hague. "You can't get a cigarette paper between William and me," he said. While all the other candidates claimed they would never allow the United Kingdom to join the euro, Mr Portillo stuck rigidly to the party line of ruling out the single currency only for this Parliament and the next.

With a majority of more than 9,000 at the last election, Kensington and Chelsea is likely to ensure Mr Portillo an early return to Westminster. Senior Tory sources said he would have to "serve his time" on the back benches, but it seems certain he will be given a frontbench post within months.

In his acceptance speech, Mr Portillo said his homosexual past was "a very long time ago" and said his frank admission had put him "beyond the reach" of gay activists. "I will not be intimidated by these people. I have told the truth. I do not regret telling the truth," he said.

Mr Portillo appeared to have benefited from a backlash against the harassment by Mr Tatchell and his fellow demonstrators. Although a significant anti-Portillo camp had developed over the past few weeks, it has been outmanoeuvred.

Mr Tatchell, whom Mr Portillo avoided by entering the meeting through a side door, pledged last night to fight the by-election and follow him everywhere on the campaign trail. Mr Portillo was given a taste of the difficult campaign ahead when OutRage! protesters disrupted his victory press conference with cries of "Hypocrite!".

The former Enfield Southgate MP sidestepped questions about how he would vote in the expected Commons vote on the Bill to lower the age of homosexual consent to 16.