Portillo's campaign: 'He went off like a rocket, then petered out'

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Indy Politics

Michael Portillo's campaign proved the old adage that the front runner in Tory leadership elections rarely wins. "He went off like a rocket but then petered out," one ally admitted last night.

Only five weeks ago, Mr Portillo was the clear favourite as he launched his bid with confidence. Surely, his followers said, the party would accept his "adapt or die" message after suffering a second crushing general election defeat?

But with Mr Portillo, nothing is ever straightforward. True, he won the backing of 13 shadow Cabinet colleagues. But his support among MPs appeared to hit a ceiling and he failed to make the progress achieved by Iain Duncan Smith.

Rumours abounded about heavy-handed pressure being applied counter-productively on Tory MPs. Even among his allies, doubts arose about the tactics of his campaign manager Francis Maude, the shadow Foreign Secretary, for whom last night's result is also a disaster.

A re-heated row about fundraising for his former Enfield Southgate Constituency Association while he was a Cabinet minister was an unwelcome reminder of Mr Portillo's controversial side.

Of more significance was his decision to speak frankly about issues such as drugs and Section 28 when questioned about them by MPs from rival camps or the media. Although Mr Portillo committed himself only to review policy on both subjects, his conversion to "caring conservatism" meant his comments were interpreted as a pledge to legalise cannabis and abolish Section 28. Privately, allies now admit he should have been more cautious. In an attempt to calm the storm, Mr Portillo had to pen a reassuring article for The Daily Telegraph, stressing that he would not jettison Conservatives' traditional values.

Mr Portillo is a man who makes enemies and one of them was determined to scupper his leadership bid. Amanda Platell, the Tories' former spin doctor, knifed him in the video diary she recorded secretly during the general election.

More damaging in the eyes of Tory MPs was Baroness Thatcher's denial of a newspaper report that she was backing Mr Portillo rather than Mr Duncan Smith. Some MPs suspected a cack-handed attempt by the Portillo camp to claim her support.

As Kenneth Clarke said last night, Mr Portillo will feel partly a sense of relief at his shattering defeat. Last year, Mr Portillo had genuine doubts about whether he any longer really wanted to lead his party. Now Tory MPs have made it easy for him to walk away.