'You know him by his silences'

Michael Portillo must see that recent events strengthen Mr Hague's chances of immediate survival as Tory leader after the general election.

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William Hague and the Tories will meet in Bournemouth tomorrow with a sense of renewed vigour. But there is one man whose smile will be forced as he glad-hands his way around the media and party faithful. Michael Portillo must see that recent events strengthen Mr Hague's chances of immediate survival as Tory leader after the general election.

William Hague and the Tories will meet in Bournemouth tomorrow with a sense of renewed vigour. But there is one man whose smile will be forced as he glad-hands his way around the media and party faithful. Michael Portillo must see that recent events strengthen Mr Hague's chances of immediate survival as Tory leader after the general election.

Five weeks ago (prior to the fuel crisis), on the day a MORI poll recorded Labour's largest lead, I met Mr Portillo for lunch. I rarely see him these days so I asked him about the poll. Inscrutable as ever, he said, "no comment". But it was his broad, relaxed smile which made me suspect his thoughts were focusing on the improved prospects for his ambition of leading the Tory party in the future. Portillo-watchers have learnt a special language in which Mr Portillo communicates his true thoughts as much by silence, body language and a loosening or tightening of the facial muscles, according to circumstance, rather than in words.

The prospect of a general election by next May looked certain. "Less than 30 weeks to go, Michael," I said cheerfully. His opaque official reply - "Is it that long?" - suggested, at face value, that he was relishing the fight ahead. But the tone implied that he could not wait for an end to his current role of sitting in a shadow cabinet with minnows, being forced to go along with policies and attitudes he knew would lead to disaster. Nowhere in those words was there anything other than the professional politician taking care in the presence of a journalist. But the shadow chancellor's wish to move on to discussing our respective holidays told its own story.

Mr Portillo is a changed man following his defeat in 1997. The ability to face and own up to the gay past immediately, before his selection for Kensington & Chelsea, was the final acceptance by him that the Tory party needed to change. Unfortunately he is now pilloried by the prejudiced, homophobic, racist right wing which once saw him as its hero. He is, as it happens, busy trying to dump these former supporters anyway, but there are others, like myself, who nevertheless relished his former role as the "son of Thatcher" and who have also been more or less purged from the old circle.

His biggest problem now is being associated with the Hague regime, with support for Section 28 and all the rest of the hard-line agenda that he knows is wrong. He recognises that, for him and the Tory party to survive, they probably have to embrace the moderate centre and address the perception that they are seen as the "nasty" party.

But if he ever aspires to clear out the Aegean stables, he may even be tempted to dump all the remnants and reminders of his Thatcherite past. I can even imagine circumstances when, fighting a future Tory leadership campaign, he will say of his previous support for Thatcherism: "It was just a youthful dalliance - all a very long time ago."

* Michael Brown was a Conservative MP, 1979-1997.

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