Will Mr Portillo's political journey ever reach a happy ending?

'We must not discount the possibility that Portillo's Progress really is a march on the road to Damascus'
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The Independent Online

"It was just a youthful dalliance - all a very long time ago," said Michael Portillo of his youthful homosexual experiences. But we can also now well imagine him using that same formulation to describe his earlier support for Thatcherism. As he faces up to the wrath of his erstwhile colleagues in the No Turning Back Group (of which I was a founding member) following revelations that he and Francis Maude, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, have resigned from the group, some are now wondering whether they were both even Thatcherites in the first place.

"It was just a youthful dalliance - all a very long time ago," said Michael Portillo of his youthful homosexual experiences. But we can also now well imagine him using that same formulation to describe his earlier support for Thatcherism. As he faces up to the wrath of his erstwhile colleagues in the No Turning Back Group (of which I was a founding member) following revelations that he and Francis Maude, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, have resigned from the group, some are now wondering whether they were both even Thatcherites in the first place.

The official reason for dumping on their old right wing colleagues - that a private discussion was leaked to the press - seems pretty thin. Mr Portillo and Mr Maude have served in very leaky governments and have done their own share of talking to the press. Mr Portillo hardly hid from the media his installation of phone lines during the Tory leadership election of 1995, in the event that John Redwood would do enough damage to John Major to cause a second ballot and allow Portillo to challenge for the job. So the leak of last week's pasting from his fellow diners, which the Shadow Chancellor was treated to over his cold meats, presented an excellent opportunity for both Maude and Portillo to find the excuse they have been seeking for some time to relinquish their Thatcherite credentials.

Portillo and Maude could be seen as simple careerists. According to this view, they regard the authoritarian drift of sections of the Conservative Party, led by Ann Widdecombe, as delaying the day when they can resume the trappings of ministerial power. The years are beginning to tell and an indefinite time in opposition fills them with horror. If the only way back is to embrace the Blairite centre ground, so be it. Lord Tebbit has long wondered whether they were Thatcherites in the first place or whether they hung on to the Lady's petticoat tails as she won elections which swept them into ministerial jobs.

Others add that, in his early days in the Conservative Research Department, Mr Portillo showed little enthusiasm for right-wing policies and, for all his intellectual ability, would have been content to follow any passing political fashion. They remind us that as a teenager he admired Harold Wilson who, he said on Desert Island Discs, "mesmerised me". Certainly, Mr Portillo has always been an undoubted dedicated follower of fashion - currently in thrall to Guy Ritchie and all his works, he even embraces the need to make over his physical appearance from time to time. It certainly seems that, after his defeat in Enfield Southgate in 1997, he was a little mesmerised by Tony Blair and the whole "Cool Britannia" and "Third Way" nonsense.

For his part, Mr Maude has always been regarded as suspect by the right from the day, 10 years ago this month, when he walked out in tears from a No Turning Back Group meeting. I was present when he confessed that he thought that Margaret Thatcher's failure to win re-election as Tory leader on the first ballot in the 1990 contest meant she was "finished", and he went off to prepare the ground for John Major's bid.

His reward was to be made Financial Secretary to the Treasury, where he busied himself with the Maastricht Treaty, and which he eventually signed. He incurred the Lady's wrath as he showed off the pen with which he signed the document. He made a wrong call by supporting Michael Howard for the leadership in 1997, and flirted with Thatcherism during his party conference speech last year with his ill-fated tax guarantee. But, having hit a career ceiling (as his removal by Mr Hague from the shadow chancellorship earlier this year demonstrates) he has since thrown in his lot with Mr Portillo (even though it was he who supplanted him). The two were caught dining in the Goring Hotel in London earlier this year and rumours surfaced that they will be the axis in any leadership bid by Mr Portillo after the assumed election defeat of the Tories next year.

It may be a little harsh, however, to see all this purely as political expediency and careerism - although neither man has ever disguised their ambitions. There is no doubt that Mr Portillo was genuinely shaken by the events of 1997. His television series Portillo's Progress, made during his exile, was an honest attempt to analyse what had gone wrong. He appeared horrified when he watched himself being dissected by a focus group recruited for one programme.

No one should query his horror at the abject poverty he discovered in Leeds, and who can blame him if he felt a sense of responsibility about the worst excesses of Thatcherism. We must not discount the possibility that Portillo's Progress - and his recent "inclusive" theme - really is a march on the road to Damascus, and not just about getting back into power.

But it is hard to see where such a Damascene conversion leaves Mr Portillo in his quest to build the coalition of support he will need to take the leadership and to achieve his new goal of making the Conservative Party embrace the centre ground. The break with the right is serious, and his public attempts to dismiss, humiliate and ignore most of his erstwhile friends means that he has forfeited a block of MPs who would not have hesitated about supporting him.

The new wave of young Eurosceptic right-wingers who will probably enter the Commons next year are also unimpressed. So where is his support to come from?

Rumour has it some One-Nation Tories, such as Nicholas Soames and former Heseltine cheerleader Richard Ottoway, provide him with a bridge to the left. In the Shadow Cabinet he also has the backing of Archie Norman, Bernard Jenkin and Tim Yeo.

But he still has a problem with the Europhiles such as David Curry and Ian Taylor, who resigned from the front bench because of the hard-line policy on the single currency. The U-turns that Mr Portillo has so far perfected on the tax guarantee, the minimum wage and Bank of England independence still leave him burdened with support for Mr Hague's European policy. As usual, however, Mr Portillo has an escape route. He has pointedly refused to rule out the single currency "forever" and I can imagine his old sparring partner, Lord Tristan Garel-Jones, muscling in on the new Portillo act. While Garel-Jones and Mr Portillo have been political foes, there is a mutual respect for each other based on their Spanish connections.

For the time being, Mr Portillo is saddled with his support for Mr Hague. "You can't put a cigarette paper between me and William", he declared after being selected for Kensington and Chelsea. Expect whole packs of Rizlas to strain this relation- ship as we approach the general election. But somehow, given the lack of solidarity within the Portillistas, I think Mr Hague can rest more easily in his leadership bed after the election.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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