Portillo calls for help in sale row

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Michael Portillo yesterday appealed to Cabinet colleagues to support him in the increasingly bitter battle over the pounds 2bn sale of armed forces married quarters.

Amid growing allegations of a "get Portillo" campaign by supporters of Tory MP John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Defence asked for backing as the senior ministers assembled for a political strategy meeting of the Cabinet in Downing Street.

The call for help in countering the campaign by Tory rebels against the sale of service houses underlined the fears by Mr Portillo that he is being damaged by the affair.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, later gave his support to the embattled minister. Mr Rifkind, Mr Portillo's predecessor at the Ministry of Defence, privately denied claims by opponents of the sale that he had always supported the move.

Mr Rifkind let it be known that he believed the armed forces accepted the need to change quarters as part of their service. He supported the sale which will release pounds 100m to pay for improvements to accommodation.

Mr Redwood yesterday intervened for the first time in the controversy when he called for a compromise to underpin the assurances given in the Commons by the Prime Minister last week that forces families will not be required to leave quarters against their will.

The Redwood camp were adamant that they were not part of a campaign to undermine Mr Portillo's standing in the party. The Secretary of State warned his critics not to try to turn the issue into a personality contest.

"I just hope it is not so, because it is a very important issue. I hope nobody is playing politics with the service families. My only concern is the issue and to get the policy exactly right," Mr Portillo told BBC Radio 4.

Last week, 64 Tory MPs led by Julian Brazier, a supporter of Mr Redwood, signed a Commons motion seeking to delay the plan to sell 58,000 homes - raising pounds 1.6bn for the Treasury - which would then be rented back by the MoD. More than 20 have since withdrawn their names after heavy lobbying by ministers and Government whips.