Rifkind's warning on the 'danger' of Portillo

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Michael Portillo faced a backlash from senior Conservatives yesterday, including the former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who said that electing him as Tory leader would be "a very dangerous experiment".

Sir Malcolm said that although Mr Portillo had remarkable qualities, he was "conscious of the fact that he is a very controversial character ­ far more than any of the other potential candidates are likely to be.

"People either like him or loathe him and the balance of that is very, very important," he said on ITV's Dimbleby programme. "I think the Conservative Party may find, if they chose him, that they may have a very successful and very impressive leader. They may find that it becomes a very dangerous experiment."

The former foreign secretary was joined in the attack by the pro-European Tory Ian Taylor, who said he planned to support Kenneth Clarke if he stood for the leadership. Mr Taylor cast aspersions on Mr Portillo's allure. He told the GMTV Sunday programme: "Actually, Michael doesn't really appeal outside the Tory party and doesn't even necessarily appeal to everyone in the Tory party.

"We have one big chance, perhaps our last chance, to try to gain back the six million people we have lost since 1992, to have a heavy hitter in politics, somebody that the public, when they look at him, know that he is a strong character whom they feel comfortable with."

Mr Taylor said there were many people who had joined the Portillo camp but who had "kept their lines open" should Mr Clarke decide to stand.

The former prime minister John Major weighed into the leadership debate by praising Mr Portillo, although he fell short of endorsing him. "Michael seems to have gone on a long journey from where he was to where I was, and I thoroughly welcome that," Mr Major said. "As far as I know it is genuine, and I think that is absolutely right for the Conservative Party. I think as a young man Michael had a particular ideological bent and I think the ideological bent preceded his brush with the real world."

Mr Major left the door open to back Mr Clarke, if he decides to stand, by saying that he would only make up his mind when he sees the full list of candidates, adding "but I am only one vote amongst many".

Mr Major appeared to launch a veiled attack on the right-wing candidate, Iain Duncan Smith, the shadow Defence Secretary, who is expected to announce his intention to stand within days. Mr Duncan Smith, who received the backing yesterday of Bernard Jenkin, the Tory transport spokesman, is regarded as Baroness Thatcher's protégé. He has the support of Lord Tebbit, Lady Thatcher's acolyte.

Mr Major called for Thatcherism to be laid to rest as an ideology. "Thatcherism was absolutely right for its time and absolutely wrong for this time," he said.

David Davis, the Eurosceptic chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, is expected shortly to announce his intention to stand for the leadership. Mr Davis, who is popular among MPs, has been canvassing support among colleagues.

The shadow Home Secretary, Ann Widdecombe, will announce her decision on a Hackney council estate today.

Michael Portillo faced a backlash from senior Conservatives yesterday, including the former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who said that electing him as Tory leader would be "a very dangerous experiment".

Sir Malcolm said that although Mr Portillo had remarkable qualities, he was "conscious of the fact that he is a very controversial character ­ far more than any of the other potential candidates are likely to be.

"People either like him or loathe him and the balance of that is very, very important," he said on ITV's Dimbleby programme. "I think the Conservative Party may find, if they chose him, that they may have a very successful and very impressive leader. They may find that it becomes a very dangerous experiment."

The former foreign secretary was joined in the attack by the pro-European Tory Ian Taylor, who said he planned to support Kenneth Clarke if he stood for the leadership. Mr Taylor cast aspersions on Mr Portillo's allure. He told the GMTV Sunday programme: "Actually, Michael doesn't really appeal outside the Tory party and doesn't even necessarily appeal to everyone in the Tory party.

"We have one big chance, perhaps our last chance, to try to gain back the six million people we have lost since 1992, to have a heavy hitter in politics, somebody that the public, when they look at him, know that he is a strong character whom they feel comfortable with."

Mr Taylor said there were many people who had joined the Portillo camp but who had "kept their lines open" should Mr Clarke decide to stand.

The former prime minister John Major weighed into the leadership debate by praising Mr Portillo, although he fell short of endorsing him. "Michael seems to have gone on a long journey from where he was to where I was, and I thoroughly welcome that," Mr Major said. "As far as I know it is genuine, and I think that is absolutely right for the Conservative Party. I think as a young man Michael had a particular ideological bent and I think the ideological bent preceded his brush with the real world."

Mr Major left the door open to back Mr Clarke, if he decides to stand, by saying that he would only make up his mind when he sees the full list of candidates, adding "but I am only one vote amongst many".

Mr Major appeared to launch a veiled attack on the right-wing candidate, Iain Duncan Smith, the shadow Defence Secretary, who is expected to announce his intention to stand within days. Mr Duncan Smith, who received the backing yesterday of Bernard Jenkin, the Tory transport spokesman, is regarded as Baroness Thatcher's protégé. He has the support of Lord Tebbit, Lady Thatcher's acolyte.

Mr Major called for Thatcherism to be laid to rest as an ideology. "Thatcherism was absolutely right for its time and absolutely wrong for this time," he said.

David Davis, the Eurosceptic chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, is expected shortly to announce his intention to stand for the leadership. Mr Davis, who is popular among MPs, has been canvassing support among colleagues.

The shadow Home Secretary, Ann Widdecombe, will announce her decision on a Hackney council estate today.

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