Leading Article: Portillo puts his foot in it again

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The Independent Online
Even for Michael Portillo it was a bit rich. Yesterday he accused Emma Nicholson of a "history of disloyalty" and accused her of stabbing Margaret Thatcher in the back. The man who has probably done more than any other politician to undermine John Major's leadership dared to tar another with his brush.

If the claims had come from a trusty stalwart such as Douglas Hurd or from the dogged Willie Whitelaw, then perhaps the remarks might have been accepted as justified. But listening to Mr Portillo was like hearing Machiavelli condemn duplicity, Zsa Zsa Gabor complain about the divorce rate or Graham Taylor moan about opponents playing the long ball game in football. It was not just that it was hard to take him seriously; his comments once again prove his striking capacity to annoy and alarm people. The problem is not that Portillo is self-confident; it's that his self-confidence blinds him so completely to his own shortcomings.

By making his intervention Mr Portillo showed once again how prepared he was to put his own interests and views ahead of his party's. He must have taken lessons in diplomacy from his portly subordinate at the Ministry of Defence, Nicholas Soames. Having watched Mr Soames blow himself up by diagnosing the Princess of Wales as being "in the advanced stages of paranoia", Mr Portillo adopted a similarly robust style towards Ms Nicholson.

Like his ministerial colleague, Mr Portillo suffers from believing that grandiosity makes for stature: he does not realise how ridiculous he can sound. For in the case of Ms Nicholson - as with the Princess - everyone knows that there is enough truth in what she says to make her actions justifiable. Many voters fear that the Conservative Party is either heading for permanent mediocrity and muddling through or a strange place of weird, illiberal beliefs and ill-judged rhetoric called Planet Portillo. So when Ms Nicholson named Mr Portillo's attitude to Europe and his jingoistic rant at last year's party conference as factors in her departure, many Tory MPs would have nodded in private agreement.

This was the moment for Mr Portillo to nurse his wounds and stay quiet: that way he would have won at least some Brownie points with the party faithful. As it is, he simply could not button his lip. Yesterday's outburst was yet more proof of what a liability he would be as either leader of the party or the country. His remarks seemed only to confirm Ms Nicholson as a woman wronged by lurching Tories.

Mr Portillo's does not know when to speak up and when to be silent. Last June, when John Major called a leadership contest, was his opportunity to come out from behind the arras, where he stood hidden for so long, with dagger drawn. But he hesitated, lost his nerve and blew his chance to make his case.

As a result, he was outmanoeuvred by John Redwood, who emerged as the standard bearer of the party's right-wing. At that stage Mr Portillo should have recognised his failure and concentrated on repairing his burnt and broken bridges to the majority of the Conservative Party.Instead he made his intemperate speech at the Tory conference, which has helped to precipitate another bout of public blood-letting. It seems 1996 is going to be a bad year for Mr Major. Judging by his performance on New Year's Day, it could be an even worse one for Mr Portillo.