A big fish out to catch votes

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The Independent Online
A THICK-SET man with a deep tan and a smile like a shark walks lightly down the steps towards the sports centre. He looks like a City trader, all cash and flash. He holds out his hand, high, to the first member of the welcome party. 'Hello,' he says in a loud, deep voice. 'I'm Michael Portillo.'

As if we didn't know. Time: 11.30am, Wednesday 11 May. Mr Portillo is already on the Euro-trail. Place: John Nike's Sports and Leisure Centre in true-blue Bracknell, Berkshire. It is an odd choice of vote-winning venue, being relatively empty at this time of day.

The minister says he has been out canvassing earlier. But the press was not, apparently, let in on that. Indeed, Conservative Central Office's press office gave out both the wrong time and wrong place for this visit. Mr Portillo is building up a reputation for bursts of political frankness unhelpful to his master. Could it be that this sports centre visit is exercise of a non-physical sort, in damage limitation?

It is a piquant sight. Michael Portillo, young pretender to Mr Major's throne, one of a band of Euro-sceptics that has been the PM's bane since he took office, campaigning for Euro-votes in an election which may be his master's downfall. Slippery terrain . . . the photographers plead with him to pose in the ice rink.

'Don't do it]' orders Mary Ballin, the Conservative agent. Mr Portillo simply gives that shark-like smile again and, pausing only to seize the nearest photogenic infant, steps on to the ice. Michael Portillo is a risk-taker.

Of course, he knows that we in the press are cherishing unkind hopes that he may fall over. He wins. The picture instead is of Perfect Family Man Who Loves Kids, a man of basic values. He stays steady on his feet. But little Emily Mace, two years old, finds that even though Michael Portillo is apparently firmly clutching her hand, the ground keeps slipping from under her. Now she knows how the Prime Minister feels.

Portillo walks off the ice victorious, and chats to her mother and grandmother. 'Now - you two aren't sisters?' he says. 'How nice of you,' says Emily's grandmother. 'How nice of me,' says Portillo, with that smile. I feel an attack coming on of that pervasive cynicism which Mr Portillo so famously deplores. Yet there is something horribly attractive, nearly mesmeric, about an operator so transparent.

His risk-taking is mingled with caution. When a BBC radio reporter begins to ask him about the Channel tunnel, Portillo brings out his own little tape recorder and stands it alongside. Can he possibly think the BBC will fake his words?

Mark Palin, from the Bracknell News, asks him if he personally wants a referendum on Europe. 'The position of all of us,' says Mr Portillo, very wisely, 'is as the Prime Minister stated in Parliament yesterday.'

At the end of the interviews he says 'Thank you]' with that ravishing smile, and firmly shakes hands. His politeness is famous. But is it tactical? He doesn't say 'Thank you' as he strides through the doors held open in his path. Nice John Stevens, the Thames Valley MEP he is supporting, hangs back and opens doors for all and sundry in an unostentatious way. But then this is Mr Portillo's day.

He walks up the hill to the Coppid Beech Hotel, opened two years ago with 200 rooms and a Swiss chalet facade. In the foyer, Portillo and his entourage gaze up through the ceiling at a glass tunnel of tier upon tier of tanks, containing 960 coloured fish, specially chosen to co-ordinate with each floor's carpets.

'Very good,' says Portillo.

For an even better view, a lift is taken to the third floor. Mr Portillo peers through the glass. He is pleased to see, he says, that the red ones are the hardest to make out - for this is a man who sees politics all around, even in fish. The group moves to stand by the yellow, Liberal Democrat fish.

'But I have to say,' says John Nike, owner of both hotel and fish, 'that the Liberals are the only ones to have any young.' A rogue female, apparently, has slipped in with these upper echelon Lib Dem fish, not for the first time. Mr Portillo says nothing. It is hard not to wonder quite what it has to do with the European elections, for not one of these fish has a vote.

The party moves on to study the next tank, in which the fish are Conservative blue. One of them, a chunky fellow with a pronouced dolphin-like smile on his fishy lips, swims forward. Mr Nike has nick-named him Michael. Mr Portillo bends to have a better look. His fleshy, handsome face gazes into the tank. The fish swims forward to take a better look at him. For a second the two blue Michaels are lip to lip. The fish flees.

The human Michael moves to one side. He seems serious. 'What,' he asks, 'is the lifespan of a fish?' Is this fellow-feeling? If so, the news is bad. Their careers, like Mr Portillo's, could be over tomorrow. The minister goes off to inspect the empty bierkeller, leaving his piscine doppelganger to swim and smile alone.

A trip to the empty disco, a glimpse at the vacant pool. And now a lunch with party workers, then a trip to Beaconsfield, territory almost as safe for the party as Bracknell.

Michael Portillo strides back through the lobby, shows his big, beautiful teeth. There has been no visible progress on the Euro-march but, more important, no controversy either. Has he said, at any point, what he really thinks? Is he allowed? He shakes the hand of the untrustworthy, cynical press and says: 'Thank you]'

(Photograph omitted)