Plots, deals and more plots: the bid for the top job begins

Late-night meetings, surprise calls and secret schemes ­ this was the Tories at work last week as the fight to succeed Hague began. Behind-the-scenes manoeuvres at Westminster.
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Indy Politics

'I feel like a tart on a Saturday night. They're all making advances to me." So spoke one of the new intake of Tory MPs last week. After a month of wooing a fickle electorate, the novice MPs have discovered that Westminster can be a very curious place, where people proffer champagne and charm in equal measure.

It won't always be like that. But last week at Westminster ­ their first week as MPs ­ was no ordinary week. William Hague had told the defeated hulk of the Conservative Party within hours of its second devastating general election defeat that he would step down as party leader. The party might have to wait weeks for a new leadership poll. Little can happen until the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs has chosen its chairman and the board of the party has decided the rules of engagement.

It could be late in the summer when the two names that win the poll of MPs are put forward to a ballot of ordinary party members. But at Westminster the campaign to elect the new leader shifted quickly into gear. So did the plotting, the scheming and the negotiating.

Archie Norman, the ex-Asda boss and a one-time shadow cabinet colleague of Mr Hague, was dishing out the bubbly to a couple of new boys on the House of Commons terrace in the name of another "loyal" colleague, Michael Portillo. "He's only after your vote," a more seasoned observer quipped. "Tell him you're a 'don't know' and you'll be drinking free champagne all summer."

Michael Portillo had fled London the Friday after the election for a break in Morocco. He, like many in Mr Hague's frontbench team, left instructions that his party had entered a "period of reflection". But by Monday morning he was back.

The shadow foreign affairs spokesman, Francis Maude ­ the first to get the call ­ became campaign manager. Andrew Mackay, the former deputy chief whip, would recruit MPs with the help of centrist MP Keith Simpson. Tim Yeo, the shadow agriculture spokesman, would court support from the party at large. David "two brains" Willetts would write speeches for a planned national tour and a formal campaign launch this week. Damian Green, a pro-European MP, would look after the media and Maurice Saatchi would take care of the money. And Mr Norman has a broader remit than mere champagne: he has brought in business and backing, not least Colin Barrow, a multi-millionaire City sugar trader whose Westminster home, London House, is now the Portillo campaign headquarters.

A day on, that rapid telephone barrage had been successful, with 10 members of the Shadow Cabinet pledging to support Mr Portillo. Was it enough? Against Ann Widdecombe, who had been cold-calling since Sunday for little return? Yes. Against Iain Duncan Smith, the arch Eurosceptic seen huddled early last week with Eurosceptic MPs Sir Peter Tapsell and Bill Cash? Yes. Against David Davis, the little-known Public Accounts Committee chairman who had convinced a number of friends to back him? Yes. Against Kenneth Clarke? Maybe not.

Stephen Dorrell, the former education secretary and an on-paper certainty to join a Clarke campaign, chaired a meeting on Monday of one-nation Tories. His aim was to urge Mr Clarke to strike a deal with Mr Portillo. At around 6pm on Monday evening Mr Clarke took a call from Mr Portillo. Always affable, Mr Clarke told him to come over. He opened the door some minutes later to Mr Portillo, Mr Maude and Mr Dorrell. A Clarke supporter said: "Portillo didn't offer him a thing. Ken came away convinced that Portillo is a hard-line Eurosceptic, just as bad as Hague."

Over in Barton Street, at Mr Barrow's London House, the temporary residents were busy recruiting to the shadow chancellor's cause, with the offer of prominence in a Portillo-led party. There were plenty of other tactics used.

"It's done by twisting of arms, threats and cajoling," one Conservative said. "It's done by warning people of the consequences of who they might sign up with, by working out who is friends with whom and exploiting or breaking those friendships. MPs are only worried about one thing: their own political career."

The so-called Portillistas were living up to their reputation. Four influential young men ­ Robbie Gibb, Malcolm Gooderham, Andrew Cooper and Michael Simmonds ­ denied they were the "backbiters" that Ms Widdecombe complained of in a Radio 4 interview, exactly as they denied they had been working on Mr Portillo's leadership chances long before Mr Hague stepped down. Whatever they did, it was enough to scare some MPs into backing their man.

There was one person, though, who couldn't be moved: Ken Clarke. As one Tory MP said: "When you've served as a senior cabinet minister, you've got a safe seat and you're 60, a little lad with a bad haircut and an attitude problem is neither frightening nor persuasive."

There was no deal. On Wednesday morning, Michael Portillo decided to go it alone.

A race with only one runner was just what the Portillistas wanted. Their morning meetings, attended by the core team plus a handful of backbenchers, were spent doing their sums. They believed they wouldn't have to worry about Ann Widdecombe, or David Davis, or John Redwood, the former Welsh Secretary. They could beat Iain Duncan Smith, the most likely rightwinger to stand, 70 per cent to 30 per cent in a poll of the party. But they could not escape it: Ken would give them a close run.

Mr Clarke's supporters, including the former ministers Michael Heseltine, David Curry and Ian Taylor, became more anxious for him to run as the week wore on. The Portillo camp, regularly on the telephone, casually dropping into the offices of his natural supporters, became more anxious that he did not. One said: "Ken won't make a deal. Not now anyway. If he does it at all it will be later in the process. That way he can make more impact on positioning."

Another group of Conservatives were also becoming anxious. They were increasingly keen for another, as yet unnamed, candidate to come forward as a rival to Mr Portillo. "We are looking for a unity candidate to come up through the middle," one MP said.

Another Tory said: "Don't forget, the favourite has never won a Tory leadership election. There's always someone who comes from nowhere, that you didn't expect, who takes it." A third said: "If we could find a sort of 'caretaker-manager' to take us through the next four years and help us reform, then we'd be looking for a proper leader to take us into government."

Michael Ancram, the party chairman, has been suggested in this "stop Portillo" role, and some Tories are warning against underestimating him: "He is more ambitious than he looks," one said. His candidature would certainly be welcomed by those in the party keen to see a younger man such as Andrew Lansley or Dr Liam Fox, who won't stand now, become leader in time for the election after next.

John Major will not publicly commit himself but is said by a close friend to "take a dim view" of Mr Portillo. Another senior source said: "A lot of the those who worked with Mr Portillo in government won't support him. That says a lot about the man."

There are many more yet to be convinced that the new, softer Michael Portillo is anything but a repackaged version of the ruthless political player whose demise in the 1997 election is still a television highlight among Tories and non-Tories alike.

Has he changed? As one warned: "No matter how much he dresses himself up, no matter what pretty language he uses, when the screen goes back they're going to realise they've picked Michael Portillo."

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