A pack of eccentrics join hunt for Portillo

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As Michael Portillo celebrated his selection for the Kensington and Chelsea seat on Tuesday night, a local Tory member cast a knowing eye over the gay rights protesters gathered outside the meeting.

As Michael Portillo celebrated his selection for the Kensington and Chelsea seat on Tuesday night, a local Tory member cast a knowing eye over the gay rights protesters gathered outside the meeting.

The elderly gentleman smiled serenely at the OutRage! demonstration before delivering his verdict on the gruelling three-week by-election campaign that lay ahead. "Pretty soon, this is going to be the only blood sport left," he chuckled.

And as nominations officially opened yesterday for the wealthiest, not to say haughtiest, constituency in the land, the fences and fox hounds of the Portillo Hunt became clear.

Between now and polling day on November 25, the former defence secretary will be up against one of the largest and wackiest fields of candidates seen in a by-election for years. Close to both Westminster and the nation's travel-allergic media, Kensington and Chelsea is the perfect location for a celebrity poll and the pack will be desperate to harry, chase and wound one of the Tory party's wiliest wild creatures.

Taking in Harrods, Kensington Palace, the Kings Road and the Victoria and Albert Museum, K&C, as aficionados call it, is a prime piece of political real estate that offers a mid-term shop window for the Government and the Opposition.

Labour's strategy for the seat was outlined yesterday with its prospective candidate, Robert Atkinson, proclaiming that his was "the only onenation party" in the contest. Just as important as his rhetoric was the appearance alongside him of Mr Portillo's nemesis at the last general election, the fresh-faced MP for Enfield Southgate, Stephen Twigg. An enduring symbol of Labour's biggest ever general election victory, Mr Twigg still casts a totemic spell over the party's activists and will be wheeled out at every opportunity in the hope that he can work his magic once more.

Mr Twigg is, of course, openly gay, but he pledged that his party would concentrate on policy and not seek to dwell on Mr Portillo's admission of his own "homosexual experiences". Instead, Labour will claim repeatedly that Mr Portillo typifies the Tories' lurch to the right.

Unfortunately for the former defence secretary, such restraint on matters sexual is unlikely to be shown by his most recent bogeyman, the OutRage! spokesman and by-election veteran Peter Tatchell. Mr Tatchell has already attempted to make his mark on the contest, haranguing Mr Portillo even before he was selected, over his alleged hypocrisy in opposing the equal age of consent and supporting the ban on gays in the military.

For entirely different reasons, the man described by his acolytes as the lost leader of the Thatcherite right, faces equally vitriolic attacks about his sexual history from Adrian Rogers, a former Tory who intends to fight on a "pro-family" ticket. A politician who makes Mr Portillo look like a lily-livered Liberal, Dr Rogers quit the Tories this year after he was threatened with expulsion for supporting the UK Independence Party. He believes that all homosexuals are "deviant".

At the other end of the single currency spectrum, John Stevens, the leader of the Pro Euro Conservative Party, will try to appeal to moderate City types in a seat where the party gained its highest vote in this year's European elections.

No by-election would be complete without the Monster Raving Loony Party, although its candidate, Alan "Howling Laud" Hope, is perhaps no match for the late, great, Screaming Lord Sutch. Mr Hope's pledge to clean up the Thames by releasing alligators into the river should however enliven proceedings.

But for sheer eccentricity, it will be hard to beat Lord Burford, the bearded boy wonder of the hereditary peerage and recently adopted prospective candidate of the Democratic Party, an obscure Euro-sceptic group formed last year by a Worcestershire businessman. Mr Portillo may regarded as one of John Major's infamous "bastards", but even he cannot compete with the lineage of a direct descendent of the illegitimate offspring of Charles II and Nell Gwynn.

The leaping lord, who shot to prominence by pouncing on the woolsack to protest at the Government's plans to remove voting rights from his pedigreed chums, got his campaign off to a flying start when Black Rod threw him out of his own press conference because it was held on parliamentary premises. A true believer that he is descended from the "real" Shakespeare, the seventh Earl of Oxford, he has achieved that rare feat of making the yogic flyers of the Natural Law Party look like models of logic and normality.

Other minority parties contesting the poll include the Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence Party, the Greens and the Campaign for Living Will Legislation. Others are sure to follow before the nominations close on Wednesday.

Yet even Lord ("Call me Charles") Burford is unlikely to ruffle the feathers of the refined residents of Kesington and Chelsea, home to a Tory association whose last two parliamentary candidates comprised a tipsy driver (Nicholas Scott) and a maverick womaniser (Alan Clark). From Mr Scott's scrapes with his motor to Mr Clark's scraps with "the coven", his mother and two daughter mistresses, K&C has seen it all and hardly batted an eye lid.

With a majority of 9,000 in 1997, the seat remained an immovable rock of Tory loyalty that even Labour's historic landslide could not shift. The new battle, featuring what one local Tory described as "a by-election of peers, queers and old dears", should prove as durable.

For the faithful, the prospect of electing a future Tory leader, and possible prime minister, is too tempting to resist. Mr Portillo's biggest advantage is that Labour are more scared of him than William Hague. If, as expected, his fox escapes the pack intact, animal-loving Tony Blair may come to rue the day.