Portillo's campaign in danger of stalling

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Indy Politics

As an anxious Michael Portillo spends this weekend telephoning Tory MPs to urge them to support his campaign for the party leadership, some allies are wondering whether a once-glittering political career will come to a sudden end when the MPs vote on Tuesday.

Although Mr Portillo was the clear front-runner when he launched his leadership bid a month ago, he now faces the real prospect that he could be eliminated when fellow MPs choose the two names to go into the decisive ballot of the party's 300,000 members.

The one-time "son of Thatcher", who reinvented himself as a "caring Conservative" when he unexpectedly lost his Enfield Southgate seat in 1997, seemed the right man to lead the Tories back from the political wilderness after the crushing defeat on 7 June.

Shadow Cabinet members, keen to back a winner to keep their jobs, rushed to endorse Mr Portillo. Rumours swept Westminster that 100 of the 166 Tory MPs would back him. But, although the shadow Chancellor was first out of the starting blocks, he failed to find the vital ingredient for any political campaign – momentum.

Now even some admirers are questioning Mr Portillo's judgment in calling for radical changes in policy which may prove to be too strong for Tory MPs, let alone the party members, to swallow. If his party rejects him this time, it is difficult to see him ever becoming its leader; indeed, he will probably not want the job.

Mr Portillo has been brave enough to say the party must adapt or die but when he has been drawn on to specific policies, such as drugs and Section 28, Tory MPs have found the medicine too unpalatable.

The "Portillistas" insist he has not called for the legislation of cannabis, saying only that the issue should reviewed, similar to his line on Section 28. He has not made speeches on these issues, but only responded to questions from the media and Tory MPs. But there is no doubt that damage has been done; Mr Portillo is now trying desperately to reassure Tory traditionalists that he would not tear up the party's sacred principles.

"Portillo has been foolish," one of his rivals for the leadership said yesterday. "The time to talk about detailed policies is after you become leader; you don't trail your coat beforehand. Look at Tony Blair. He abolished Clause 4 after becoming leader. He might not have won the job if he had said it beforehand."

Critics say the Portillo camp allowed itself to be "outspun" in the media game by Iain Duncan Smith's team, who deliberately underplayed the number of MPs backing him by 10, so that his 39 votes in last Tuesday's first ballot gave him what Americans call the "big mo" – momentum. In contrast, Mr Portillo's 49 votes gave the impression his campaign had stalled.

Another body blow came yesterday when David Davis switched his support to Mr Duncan Smith and urged his 17 backers to follow suit. With Michael Ancram and his 16 MP supporters also up for grabs, the $64,000 dollar question for the Portillo camp this weekend will be: how do we squeeze a few extra votes from the two other campaigns which were both resolutely determined to "stop Portillo"?

As Mr Portillo prepared to press the flesh with Tory activists in Sussex today andconduct a round of media interviews, his followers were putting on a brave face. His sales pitch is that he is the only "unity candidate" left in the race: while Mr Duncan Smith takes votes from the right and Kenneth Clarke from the left, Mr Portillo will take them from both wings of the party.

He will also portray himself as the man most likely to lead the party back to power because he is popular with the under-40s, who have largely deserted a party that no longer speaks to them.