Leading Article: Portillo plays on prejudice

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MICHAEL PORTILLO has made three speeches this year that have brought him headlines. Each appears to have been intended to endear him to the right wing of the Conservative Party. Yet the first was widely mocked; the second was followed by an embarrassed retraction; and the third, delivered on Friday in Fife, was an often banal appeal to the 'quiet majority'. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury is considered a clever as well as attractive politician. But if he is to be taken seriously outside the Commons as the right's candidate in a leadership challenge to John Major, he must do better.

His first headline-catching exercise, in January, was notable for an attack on 'one of the greatest threats that has ever confronted the British nation'. This, he revealed, is the 'New British Disease: the self-destructive sickness of national cynicism. It is spread by the so-called opinion-formers within the British elite, the people who think they know what's best for all of us'.

Mr Portillo exonerated the Commons, which he saw as 'far too important to be treated as a joke . . . few countries have systems that produce national governments of such incorruptibility'. How this cynical 'new establishment' had gained so much influence in 15 years of Conservative government remained unexplained.

Mr Portillo's speech to Southampton students in February included a passage in which he said: 'If any of you in this room have got an A-level, it is because you have worked to get it. Go to any other country and when you have got an A-level you have bought it or because you were a friend of the minister.' Much the same applied to business contracts, he said. Mr Portillo apologised immediately for these 'off-the-cuff remarks' - but was found to have made a similar speech a few weeks earlier.

Friday's address was altogether safer in its homage to the 'quiet majority dismayed by much that goes on around it: standing in the Post Office queue watching handouts to people who seem capable of work; reading of yobbos sent on sailing cruises . . .' As the safety net had become 'thicker, higher and wider', the penalties for fecklessness and rewards for personal responsibility had diminished. Again, he did not say why this had happened under his own party.

What these speeches have in common is that staple ingredient of the right: the appeal to prejudice, be it against a so-called 'new establishment', against foreigners, or against able-bodied job-avoiders. Coupled with that is the insulting assumption that those who want self-advancement, a good education and a job are natural Conservatives. In reality, they are as likely to be of any or no political persuasion.

Ambitious politicians with Cabinet responsibilities suffer from the constraint of not being able to spell out views that run counter to government policy. But on the evidence so far, Mr Portillo lacks the qualities of judgement and largeness of spirit that the country, and hopefully his own party, are likely to seek from a new leader.