In praise of the maligned Mr Portillo

The Defence Secretary's views have been distorted by friend and foe, argues Andrew Lansley
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The Independent Online
It was Jim Callaghan who said that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. We can see how right he was. While Michael Portillo has been, literally, on the other side of the world, various absurd misrepresentations have been up and running here in Britain about what he is alleged to have said about Emma Nicholson's defection and what he is alleged to have been planning to do with the Admiralty Arch.

We all know that to be misquoted or misrepresented is the politician's occupational hazard, but it doesn't mean that we have to accept that every cock-and-bull story has to be accepted at face value. I like to judge issues, and people, on their merits and on the facts. Neither of these stories stands up to examination. Michael Portillo didn't say that if Emma Nicholson - and, by extension, others - was a federalist, she should get out of the Conservative Party. She made it clear that the Liberal Democrats are committed to a federal Europe, to a United States of Europe. Conservatives are opposed to that, yet that is the choice Emma Nicholson has made.

To criticise the Liberal Democrat policies is no more nor less than the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said and would say. They, and Michael Portillo, have acknowledged that the Conservative Party is a broad church. Leaving the Conservative Party for the ranks of the Liberal Democrats implies embracing the programme of that party, which is an openly federalist agenda: one which Conservatives have criticised and will continue to criticise. There is nothing wrong in Michael Portillo doing exactly that.

The Admiralty Arch episode is even more absurd. Not only is there no plan to sell it, it is not Michael Portillo's ministerial responsibility anyway.

When Mr Portillo returns from representing Britain overseas he may feel justifiably aggrieved at the way in which the media and opposition have whipped up these stories into a personal campaign against him. I would suggest that he should continue to be relaxed about this. It is a measure of the opposition's lack of confidence in their own arguments over policy that they have to distort what we say in order to attack it.

The Portillo way is to be clear and precise; to say what he means and mean what he says; if necessary, to carry that clarity through into the logic of the argument. It is that about him which impresses people and which most alarms the opposition. Clarity about Conservative principles and policies contrasts with the emptiness and waffle which so often passes for opposition policy.

The worst thing Conservatives can do is to be drawn into internal debates of an illusory kind about left versus right. Mr Portillo sees it as his task to fulfil his role as Secretary of State for Defence, to promote the policies of the Government as a whole and to criticise opposition policies. He does so with a skill and clarity which, the evidence suggests, is widely appreciated by those who work closely with him, not least in the Ministry of Defence. It is those abilities to which the Prime Minister referred in his Breakfast with Frost interview on Sunday.

The job of Conservatives is to be equally focused upon the same tasks. We are not currently in the business of deciding the future of the Conservative Party; we are in the business of deciding the future of this country. Nothing would serve Labour better than for the Conservative Party to be distracted into internal wranglings over non-issues or trumped-up rows. It would be a bonus to Labour strategists if Michael Portillo, one of the Conservative spokesmen most capable of presenting the party's argument forcefully, were to be hurt by friendly fire.

There are some in every political party whose concern is with the personalities - who's on the way up, or on the way down. There are a few, very few, in every political party who regard the ideological debate within their own party as more significant than the contest of ideas and policies between the parties. Ask the Labour Party if it is right to be thus preoccupied. It is not, and the need for the Conservative Party today is to draw upon its shared values and proven policies to demonstrate why we should be re-elected.

This will not be achieved by allowing the Labour Party to obscure the differences between Conservatives and Labour. That is why we should applaud Mr Portillo's approach, not cavil at it. The public look to the Conservative Party for strong and effective policies. His approach, both at the Treasury in terms of public expenditure, and now at the Ministry of Defence, is to offer that.

He has set out clear differences in policy between Conservatives and Labour on Europe, the Constitution, the economy, and privatisation. We need more of that, not less. Research with voters shows that those who have become disillusioned with the Government are not going in search of Labour. They are going in search of the certainties and success of Conservatism. They are not looking for a more extreme form of Conservatism but to be reassured that the principles and policies they recognise as Conservative are to be effectively delivered. The Prime Minister and this government have those policies in execution and in the making.

We will never be able to convince sceptical voters of this, however, while we allow strong exponents of those policies to be trammelled by misinterpretations or false accusations. That is why all Conservatives should not stand by, still less experience any sense of schadenfreude at Michael Portillo's experiences of the past 10 days, but should defend him, as they would any party spokesman, recognising the strength he brings to us in taking our message to the British people.

The writer is prospective parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire and is a former head of the Conservative Research Department.