Generalissimo in search of a spot of bother

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LET'S BEGIN with a little test. Who said the following? "There was a lot of noise and it was a heat of the moment comment, which I did not mean to say ... I didn't mean to exaggerate in the way I did." In case you haven't guessed the source of this refreshingly abject apology, there's a bit more of it: "Anyone can make an error like that. I am sorry if anyone is insulted by it. I am now setting the record straight."

Still racking your brains? Here's a final soundbite this time with a bit of petulance creeping in to suggest that the heart-searching is a little more ... tactical, shall we say, than it might at first have sounded? "I am only a junior member of the Cabinet who moved to put things right. I don't see why that is the cause of such concern." The answer is Michael Portillo, apologising for making a series of unsub- stantiated slurs on foreigners in a speech at Southampton University in February last year.

"Go to any other country and when you have got an A-level you have bought it," the then treasury minister informed members of the university's Conservative Association in a tirade which even they, according to one report, found hard to stomach (it brought "gasps from his audience" according to the Daily Mail). Britain, he asserted, was the "only honest" nation in the world.

The underlying sentiment is very little different from that expressed in Portillo's crass anti-Brussels speech in Blackpool this week. Apart from his puzzling endorsement of one of British Airways' Scandinavian competitors ("Around the world three letters send a chill down the spine of the enemy - SAS"), the Defence Secretary pulled off a fair impersonation of that fine British export, the football hooligan, gearing himself up for a ruckus after the big match: "Don't mess with Britain, Jimmy."

All right, he didn't really say Jimmy. But it's instructive that, at the beginning of last year, John Major felt able to distance himself from his unappealing sidekick through the use of a well-worn political formula: an aide, it was reported, said the Prime Minister regarded the affair entirely as a matter for Portillo. This week, Major sat on the platform as the Generalissimo ranted madly about the EC metricating uniforms and cap badges, whatever that means, and congratulated him warmly at the end of it.

I THINK it's a safe bet that General Portillo is not an avid reader of the works of Vera Brittain, the feminist writer whose harrowing account of the First World War, in which she lost her fiance, her brother and all her close male friends, has become a 20th-century classic. Testament of Youth records the beginning of Brittain's progression from conventional sentiment - she sent her fiance, who was in the trenches at Hebuterre, a copy of Rupert Brooke's 1914 sonnets a few months after they were published - to outright pacifism.

In 1944 her public opposition to the saturation bombing of Ger- man cities caused uproar. "British Woman Pacifist Rouses US Fury" was the headline in the Sunday Chronicle as it described the American response to Brittain's article "Massacre By Bombing". Brittain was denounced by the journalist William Shirer, who accused her of repeating Nazi propaganda, and by President Roosevelt who delivered a "stinging rebuke" to Vera and the 28 leading American clergy and writers who had signed a preface supporting what she had written.

At the time, Brittain's children were living in the United States where she had sent them, after much agonising, at the beginning of the war; she was subsequently refused an exit permit to visit them by the British government, which was embarrassed by her membership of the Peace Pledge Union. These days, thanks to Virago's republication in 1978 of Testament of Youth and the very successful television adaptation the following year in which Brittain was played by Cheryl Campbell, her reputation has never been higher.

On Friday, I'm going to a small ceremony in Bloomsbury where Brittain's daughter, Shirley Williams, will unveil a blue plaque at the home her mother shared with her great friend, the novelist Winifred Holtby. From Doughty Street we're going on to a reception to celebrate publication of a new biography of Brittain by Paul Berry and my friend Mark Bostridge. The venue is the Imperial War Museum, which has worked hard in recent years to record the other side of war - the nasty, messy, bloody bits which people like our posturing Defence Secretary forget. I wonder if anyone's thought to invite him?

SANDRA and Michael Howard bumped into Carolyn and Michael Portillo at a service station on their way to the Tory conference in Blackpool. The Generalissimo was getting some money out of the wall and it was a lovely sunny day, the kind we British do so well and that Johnny-foreigner is so envious of ...

There I go, getting carried away again. Actually it was a sunny day and Portillo was sticking his card in a bank machine, a piece of information I owe to Sandra Howard's "conference notebook" in the Daily Mail. Mrs Howard, the former model Sandra Paul, is full of useful and witty tips like this one: "A Conservative spouse need not look too conservative. Elegant, even eye-catching, probably not trousers, no red, minimal glitz after dark, no over-exposure."

Out with the DKNY velvet leggings then; this is invaluable advice for those of us who secretly long to sit on the platform at a future Tory conference, beaming fondly as our husbands lay into criminals, beggars and foreigners. Or, indeed, those of us who would like to do ditto at a Labour conference. Mrs Howard's witless jottings signal the return of that endangered species, the Political Wife, and isn't it nice that she and Cherie Blair bought exactly the same outfit?