Portillo speech suggests play for leadership: Patricia Wynn Davies on the motive behind a forceful defence of 'Britain's quiet majority'

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MICHAEL PORTILLO made a strong play to be taken seriously as a potential Tory leader last night, combining a defence of Britain's 'quiet' majority with an attack on the 'fecklessness' encouraged by 30 years of social legislation.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury - and darling of the Tory right - launched his latest broadside on the philosophical health of the nation in a speech on 'the Conservative agenda' to the North-east Fife Conservative Association.

'We must listen to the still small voice of Britain's quiet majority,' Mr Portillo urged. He said: 'The quiet majority is dismayed by much that goes on around it: standing in the Post Office queue watching handouts going to people who seem capable of work; reading of yobbos sent on sailing cruises; being told that competition in schools is divisive or demoralising.'

With only passing reference to the local and European elections, the value-laden speech borders on a preliminary manifesto geared at upping the ideological ante in advance of a future leadership contest.

Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, and Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, are current favourites to succeed John Major. But the longer Mr Major stays in power, the greater are Mr Portillo's chances of advancement.

He said in the speech: 'The trend of legislation over 30 years has been to put more responsibility on government. The safety net has become thicker, higher and wider. Help from government has become widely available with scant regard to whether the recipients have behaved reasonably or unreasonably, responsibly or irresponsibly.

'As a result, the penalties for fecklessness have been diminished and the rewards for personal responsibility devalued.'

Mr Portillo was forced into an embarrassing climbdown following a speech in February claiming that other countries allowed educational qualifications to be bought.

While he steered clear of such obvious controversy yesterday, there were echoes of an earlier onslaught against the cynicism of 'so-called opinion formers within the British elite' as he hit out at 'vested interests' who could 'trumpet their causes' via a free press.

While he reflects much said by John Major, he adopted a far more hectoring tone in last night's speech - which also included such truisms as 'people who esteem themselves feel capable of shaping their lives and are less likely to develop anti-social tendencies'. Implicitly criticising more senior Cabinet colleagues, he insisted: 'Governments must have an ethical basis for the programmes they pursue. They must be aware of the consequences on behaviour of (their) legislation.'

The quiet majority were the people 'who believe that the principal responsibility for organising their lives rests with them; not with others, not with government. The people who seek to make their own way and provide for themselves, who like to get on. The people who want to make progress, for themselves and for their families. They want their children to be better educated than they were and want them to inherit more than they did.

'This quiet majority takes responsibility for its own behaviour which is self-assertive, but generally polite, and always lawful. They take responsibility for their children and where humanly possible for granny as well. This quiet majority pays its taxes, meets its dues and plays its part in the community.'

Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said: 'The speech is an extraordinary condemnation of Britain as it is today without any apparent recognition of the fact that the Conservatives have been in power for 15 years.

'He shows an unusual preoccupation with knocking down an argument that no one has ever made - that people believe it is the role of government to relieve individuals of responsibility.'