Simon Kelner: Michael Portillo is a performer who's still a politician, deep down

Kelner's View

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The Independent Online

It was a book whose title adequately captured the spirit of the seismic political change that Britain underwent in the General Election of 1997. Were You Still Up For Portillo? by the journalist Brian Cathcart was very cleverly pitched, because it made the unseating of Portillo in Enfield Southgate – where previously the Conservatives had luxuriated in a 15,000 majority – emblematic of the country's dramatic shift which saw New Labour swept to power on a landslide.

Portillo's defeat was significant for other reasons: as an avowed Thatcherite, he wasn't exactly the most loved politician in Britain at the time, but he was widely tipped to be the next leader of the Tory party. That's why, if you'd stayed up into the early hours, and witnessed the charmingly bemused expression on the face of Stephen Twigg, the man who vanquished Portillo, you knew the political map of Britain was being redrawn in a major way.

Now, almost 15 years on, there's a whole generation of people growing up who believe Michael Portillo is merely a television personality rather than a human weathervane of social change.

The afterlife of senior politicians from that era offers up some interesting case studies. Some went into the Lords, and some just went for the money. (On that subject, I cannot understand why much more of a fuss isn't made about Tony Blair, about the squillions he earns from connections he made while in No 10, about the dodgy company he keeps, about his lack of effectiveness in the Middle East, and, above all, about his tax affairs, which are arranged in such a way as to defy understanding by anyone without a degree in accounting.)

Others wrote memoirs (available on a remaindered shelf near you), and yet others pursued a second career in the media. Portillo has been more successful than most: he is erudite, has strong opinions and a certain amount of TV presence. In fact, so much have I enjoyed his series Great British Railway Journeys, which has just begun its third run on BBC2, that I almost forgot it was Michael Portillo presenting it.

But not quite. The most recent instalment, which saw him travel from Port Talbot to Milford Haven, taking in the industrial landscape of South Wales, was, as usual, an interesting, well-constructed, beautifully photographed programme. He met the boss of Port Talbot's steelworks, he met a male voice choir, he had a chat with the secretary of Neath's rugby club.

All were – in the manner of almost every South Walian I have met – welcoming and courteous. Heavy industry, singing and rugby. These are, undoubtedly, three characteristics of the area. But I couldn't help feeling one thing was missing. Ah yes. Coal. Where were the miners who still blame Margaret Thatcher for the destruction of their livelihoods and their communities?

What would they have had to say to a man so closely associated with her? I was working in Neath during the Thatcher era, and still recall the visceral anger felt towards her and her government. That has only partially dissipated with time. I can't imagine that The Iron Lady will play too well in cinemas in South Wales. Portillo was wise not to go there, so to speak. He may be a media performer now, but he'll always be a politician.

 

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