Michael Howard's hopes of persuading Tory "big beasts" to rejoin the fight against Labour suffered a setback yesterday when Michael Portillo announced he was to leave Parliament.
The former darling of the Thatcherite right, who became standard-bearer for Tory modernisers, will quit as MP for Kensington and Chelsea at the next general election. He rejected the offer of a senior post in Mr Howard's Shadow Cabinet.
Mr Portillo, 50, denied that he had snubbed the new Tory leader, insisting he had made his decision some time ago. "I have been thinking about this for a long time," he said. "I have lost my enthusiasm for the cut and thrust of politics." He said he was keen to explore opportunities in the media, public bodies and the arts.
The former defence secretary promised his support to Mr Howard, who told Mr Portillo in a letter he was "extremely sad" he had decided to leave Parliament and would be a "great loss".
The return of Mr Portillo would have been a coup for Mr Howard, bolstering his pledge to modernise the party and to lead it from the centre.
Mr Portillo, who intended to announce his departure in about two weeks, brought the announcement forward as Mr Howard prepared to name his frontbench team. He said: "Michael Howard offered me a job in the Shadow Cabinet, he tried to persuade me to stay, but I would not change my mind.''
He denied that he was leaving a "sinking ship. The story is about how the Conservative Party is afloat again."
John Reid, Health Secretary, said Mr Portillo's decision proved Tory moderates and modernisers had "given up''.