Thirty months on, Portillo is back in business

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"MICHAEL DENZIL Xavier Portillo...Conservative...11,004 votes". As Mrs Priscilla Frazer, Mayor and returning officer for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea announced the result, the spray-on smile of the triumphant Tory candidate for once looked completely genuine.

More than 30 months since his previous brush with the British electorate, the lost leader of the Thatcherite right was back. And boy was he relieved.

The last time the nation had been treated to a close-up of those famous features, Mr Portillo's quiff had wilted in the face of a massive defeat at Enfield Southgate and the pained dignity etched on his face became an enduring symbol of the Tory catastrophe of the General Election.

In 1997, "Were you up for Portillo?" became the excited refrain of Labour supporters. In 1999, Labour may not have won the contest, but with a reduced majority, they felt they had secured the moral victory.

Even in rock solid Kensington & Chelsea, that mythic defeat was never far from his mind and virtually all of his record-breaking 17 opponents did their best to remind him of it. The political menagerie gathered on stage alongside the nation's newest MP certainly added much-needed colour to a contest that managed to stimulate just a tiny fraction of the constituency's voters.

Lisa Lovebucket, the candidate for the People's Dream Net party, was dressed rather demurely in a purple evening gown. Louise Hodges, of The Daily Sport party, was even more sensibly dressed in a pin-striped trouser suit and high heels.

The official Monster Raving Loony party candidate, Alan "Howling Laurd" Hope, was sporting an appropriately barmy 10-gallon stetson and assorted badges, while the "Legalise Cannabis Alliance" candidate looked defiantly towards the rows of policemen with a perfectly sober (honest) look on his face.

Lord "Call Me Charlie" Burford, the leaping lord who grabbed his own five minutes of fame on the Woolsack recently, was positively down-beat as he sucked on his slim panatella.

But with a field of candidates comprising the "Stop Tobacco Companies Farming Our Children" party and assorted pro- and anti-Euro fanatics, even the Natural Law Party candidate was left looking like a model of yogic sanity.

In politics, as in life, of course, size matters. With a by-election ballot paper a huge 25 inches long, Mr Portillo was guaranteed a place in history even before the result was read out.

He was number 14 on the ballot paper, having avoided the deft trick of his Liberal Democrat rival, Robert Woodthorpe-Brown, who had shortened his name to plain Robert Brown so that he could gain second spot on the paper.

Endorsed by Thatch' and chased by Tatch', it had been a gruelling three weeks for the man with the scrabble-winning middle name, but now it was finally all over.