Michael Portillo has had the best possible beginning to his campaign. The first week brought him momentum, endorsements from serious figures across the party, and the revolt of Ann Widdecombe. In her various statements, Miss Widdecombe displayed the breadth of vision, generosity of mind and political sensitivity which one has come to expect from her. It is to be hoped that she will leave the front bench, never to return.
But in order to maintain his momentum, Mr Portillo will now have to clarify his position. Up to now, he has been building consensus, with some success. At some stage, however, he will have to move beyond the common ground, for he will not find it possible to agree with all his fellow Tories. If he is to define his own beliefs, he may have to take issue with two groups of fellow Tories: the fantasists and the ecumenists.
The fantasists are those who regard themselves as the guardians of the Thatcherite flame. They believe that when their party overthrew her, it not only committed matricide but was also guilty of overthrowing its principles. So the only way to expiate those terrible crimes is to return to paleolithic Thatcherite purity. That is what Ian Duncan Smith and most of his supporters believe.
One can admire their sincerity, but there is a difficulty. The version of Thatcherism to which they subscribe bears no relation to the way in which the Baroness conducted her governments. It is merely a figment of their own imagination. Year on year, Margaret Thatcher increased public expenditure. As well as insisting that the NHS was safe with her, she lived up to her word, raising its budgets by an average of 3 per cent a year in real terms.
Margaret Thatcher also deepened Britain's involvement in Europe, transferring more powers from London to Brussels than any premier before or since, with the sole exception of Ted Heath. Indeed, it is not necessary to be an ultra-Thatcherite to believe that the Single European Act went too far, nor to regret the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Yet some of Lady Thatcher's soi-disant political heirs would have us believe that she scorned compromise and concession and never deviated from the high road of conviction. That version of Thatcherism is suitable for some history books: those written for children up to the age of eight. But no grown-up should entertain such a naïve and misleading version of events.
Indeed, such nonsensical hagiography only serves to obscure her real achievements. It also confuses the debate about future Tory policy. Some Tories do believe in slashing public expenditure and in withdrawal from Europe and those are legitimate positions. But even if these days, Baroness Thatcher sometimes encourages such flights of fancy in her after-dinner conversations, they have nothing to do with Thatcherism. A real world, practical Thatcherite might well argue that year on year, the state should own less of the nation's wealth and spend less of the nation's income.
That is a realistic ambition, though, as Margaret Thatcher found out, it is by no means easy to achieve. But anyone who believes that the Tory party should go further and commit itself to taking a scythe to the state has no right to call themselves a Thatcherite. When she was prime minister, Margaret Thatcher would not have entertained such absurdities for a second.
Mr Portillo has no wish to repudiate Lady Thatcher's legacy, still less to disparage her successes. But he does not believe that he should be expected to base his policies on Thatcherite mythology. He would like to construct his programme for government around his understanding of the national interest, just as she did. He would like to base his plans on what is practical, just as she did. Anyone who doubts Michael Portillo's Thatcherite credentials ought to be honest enough to admit that if Michael Portillo is no Thatcherite, nor was Premier Thatcher.
But the fantasists are not the only problem. Yesterday, I paid a rare visit to church. It being the first Sunday after Trinity, the epistle came from St John: "Beloved, let us love one another.'' This is a message which today's Conservative Party should heed. In recent years there has been too much fratricide. A colleague with whom one is in disagreement should not be treated as an Amalekite, to be smitten hip and thigh.
But we live in a fallen world, so there are limits. One of those would concern the admission of Kenneth Clarke to a Portillo Shadow Cabinet.
It is easy to see why some Tories find this an attractive idea. They hope that it could enable the party to overcome its euro divisions, and thus encourage all Tories to forget their sectarian disagreements and to work together to defeat Labour.
But this is another fantasy. If Mr Clarke were in the Shadow Cabinet, the divisions over Europe, far from being assuaged, would become even more apparent. For Ken is a true believer: a genuine federalists and Euro-fanatic. He would be unable to stop campaigning for the single currency. He would indeed be likely to use his additional prominence to put even more pressure on the Prime Minister to press ahead with the referendum.
But three-quarters of his shadow cabinet colleagues would find this wholly unacceptable. So whenever Ken Clarke spoke his mind, they would speak theirs. It is entirely desirable that the Tory party should not degenerate into a single-issue pressure group, and should be able to persuade the voters that it has policies on a whole range of areas, and not only on the euro. But the presence of Mr Clarke in the Shadow Cabinet would make it almost impossible for the Tory front bench to escape from constant debates on Europe. On that fraught topic, far from being a solution, Mr Clarke would exacerbate the problem.
Mr Portillo has one further difficulty. His campaign is already well under way, yet it will be at least a month before the election is concluded. That is plenty of time for Tory MPs to become irritated with the whole process, and to behave in unpredictable and perverse fashions. Mr Portillo has somehow to reassure his supporters and potential supporters, without taking them for granted. It is important that even in these early days, he manages to persuade the Tory party that he can rapidly move beyond internal debates and take the battle to Labour.
Given that Malcolm Rifkind failed to win his seat, there is no realistic alternative to Michael Portillo. Ann Widdecombe has imploded, not before time. Ian Duncan Smith and David Davis are good men, but both lack that extra dimension of political leadership which marks a potential premier.
Mr Portillo has that, but he will have to convince his party that he knows where he is leading it. In this respect, a dispute with the fantasists and the ecumenists could be useful. It is easier for a politician to convince people that he knows what he is for, when they also know what he is against.Reuse content