A big loss for Portillo, but it may be a bigger one for the Tory party

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Michael Portillo has not seemed like a happy politician for a long time. Now he has good reason for his melancholy. In his leadership bid he won tantalisingly uncertain victories in the first two ballots of MPs before suffering the gloomy despair of Tuesday afternoon. He was so near, and yet so far – a conclusion that applies to his wildly oscillating political career as a whole.

At the height of Thatcher and Thatcherism it all looked so much more straightforward for this charismatic, telegenic politician. He was a true believer in the Thatcherite cause, with a growing band of his own true believers.

When his mentor left the political stage in 1990, Michael Portillo appeared to be her natural heir. After all, she had paid him the compliment of placing him in charge of her beloved poll tax. He reciprocated by telling the Conservative Party conference that he saw it as "a great honour" to be implementing what proved to be the most unpopular tax of the 20th century. Mrs Thatcher applauded with an unusual ferocity. He was one of us.

And so he unquestionably was. On the night Mrs Thatcher decided to resign in November 1990, Mr Portillo was one of the few ministerial colleagues who pleaded with her to stay. Adopting the brooding presence that was to become his hallmark, a mournful Portillo subsequently described her removal as a tragedy for both the party and the country.

He tried to ease the pain by carrying the Thatcherite torch on her behalf. While the pragmatic John Major trimmed, Portillo appeared to be the man of shining certainties. In the early 1990s he made a series of epic speeches placing the importance of low public spending and much lower taxes in an almost biblical context.

The media loved it. The Times declared that the Conservatives had at last found a "philosopher king". At the same time, he emerged as the most impassioned Eurosceptic in the Cabinet. If the Chancellor, Ken Clarke, made a nod towards the euro, Mr Portillo would pop up to put the alternative anti-euro case. Watching from the sidelines, Mrs Thatcher purred adoringly.

At Conservative Party conferences, he became the star turn. His fringe meetings had a revivalist atmosphere in which the great man would enter a packed room, speak briefly to rapturous cheers and then sign copies of his latest anthology of speeches.

Yet even then at the height of his dazzling appeal – in the early to mid 1990s – Portillo was not an entirely convincing politician. More to the point, he behaved as if he had not even entirely convinced himself. His epic speeches on the importance of cutting public spending followed his tenure as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when government expenditure had risen significantly. He made speeches as Defence Secretary during a period in which he fought hard to protect his own big budget from the hands of the Treasury.

When he was being deliberately bombastic he did not pull it off either. His notorious "Who Dares Wins" speech at the 1995 party conference was misjudged not only in terms of content, but in its over-the-top delivery. It was almost as if he was compensating for his own doubts by giving an overblown performance. Last week, Mr Portillo said that he had learnt then about the importance of addressing a wider television audience. But that speech did not work especially well even in the conference hall.

Contrary to mythology, Portillo's self-proclaimed "journey" began around that time, rather than after his defeat in the 1997 election. His indecision over whether to challenge John Major in the 1995 leadership contest, in which his supporters famously installed phone lines to prepare for a campaign that never happened, was another serious setback for him. In the run-up to the 1997 election he already appeared a lot more subdued. His speech at the 1996 conference, for example, was more thoughtful in style and delivery than the previous year.

His "journey", which accelerated after the 1997 election, continued to focus on style more than substance, but in a way that has infuriated some of his former admirers. At first he appeared to have hit upon a formula that pleased a broad church within his party. His fringe meeting at the 1997 party conference, in which he appeared from the wilderness to address another doting audience, struck a new note. He spoke of the need for social inclusiveness. But there was still nothing of substance in the speech that might alarm his right-wing acolytes.

Since then Mr Portillo has lost support, but in a way that reflects more poorly on his deserting fans than it does on him. He had spoken with some candour about his gay past just before he became the candidate for Kensington and Chelsea in the autumn of 1999. There is no doubt that these revelations shocked some of his previous admirers. The likes of Lord Tebbit and the Daily Mail never tried to disguise their disapproval, making snide and cruel remarks about the need for the Tories to be led by a "normal" person.

Even so, some Tory MPs wondered whether he had been entirely candid or whether there might be more revelations to come. They did not trust him anymore, doubts reinforced by his enigmatic "journey" and the way he behaved when he joined William Hague's front-bench team as Shadow Chancellor.

In fact, in this role he made Hague's right-wing populism a little more palatable by modifying the economically illiterate tax guarantee and declaring support for the minimum wage. He also questioned Mr Hague's rush to offer cuts in petrol prices during the fuel dispute. They had a blazing row over it. But these discussions took place in private. Naively, Mr Hague's press secretary, Amanda Platell, took these private battles to be signs of disloyalty. Still, she was not alone in viewing virtually every act of Mr Portillo's as a sign of his leadership ambitions.

That has been Portillo's fatal problem. For too long he has been seen as a future leader. For more than a decade he has had an aura about him. Auras can be a burden. Mr Major regarded him with suspicion for nearly seven years. Mr Hague regarded him with deep unease for another four. The media watched, ready to pounce, viewing his every action through a prism marked "ambitious, scheming future leader". Eleven years of being a possible future leader have ensured that he would never be an actual leader.

Mr Portillo has made matters worse by displaying consistently eccentric misjudgment, from his "Who Dares Wins" speech to the current leadership contest in which, inadvertently, he turned cannabis and Section 28 into defining themes of his candidacy. His party was not ready for this social liberalism. As a result they have lost a potentially charismatic leader who, at 48, is the same age as Tony Blair and who could have unnerved the Prime Minister.

Yet, even though he plans to retire from the front bench, as he announced yesterday, he will have an extensive hinterland to draw on. A lover of music, books and travel, he was always ambiguous about becoming leader.

Michael Portillo is one of the Conservative Party's more complex individuals, and yesterday's result may well prove a greater loss for his party than it will be for him.

How a high-flyer twice fell to earth

26 May 1953 Born in North London.

Educated at Harrow County Boy's School. Peterhouse College, Cambridge, where he gained a first class degree in history

1976-1979 Conservative Party research department

1979-1981 Special adviser to the then Secretary of State for Energy

1981-1983 Consultant, Kerr McGee Oil Limited

1983 Special adviser to the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Cecil Parkinson

1983-1984 Special adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson

1984-1997 MP for Enfield Southgate; defeated by Stephen Twigg in the 1997 general election

1986-1987 Assistant chief whip

1987-1988 Junior minister, Department of Health and Social Security

1988-1990 Minister of State, Department of Transport

1990-1992 Minister for Local Government

1992-1994 Chief Secretary to the Treasury

1994-1995 Secretary of State for Employment

1995-1997 Secretary of State for Defence

From November 1999 MP for Kensington and Chelsea

From 2000 Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

2001 Defeated in Tory leadership contest