Michael Portillo misjudged politics and public

Politicians have a habit of going wrong when they try to be what they aren't
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There used to be something called the New Right. It didn't mind being a divisive force within British Conservatism. Indeed it wasn't really conservative at all, but radical. It imported some of its ideas from the United States. Its figurehead, Margaret Thatcher, was never unambiguously New Right, but many of her younger and most devoted followers were. Most of them had scant respect for institutions such as the Bar, the BBC and Oxbridge. Some of them were convinced libertarians. At least one present minister was an advocate of legalising heroin when he was, like Michael Portillo, a backbench member of the Thatcherite No Turning Back group. And while they weren't remotely republican, they weren't misty-eyed ultra- monarchists, either. They weren't really all that interested in the subject.

But having hijacked the Tory bus for a decade or more, the most ambitious of them started to recognise that many of its passengers had other, more old fashioned, obsessions. The attempt by the pretenders of the new right to reconnect to the old right has been a submerged but important story of the last five years. It is surely part of why in 1994 Portillo started making the odd speech lamenting the disrepute into which the country's ancient institutions, including the monarchy, had fallen. This was all the more striking because he came from the wing of the party which had shown the healthiest disrespect for tradition. And it was part, perhaps, of why John Redwood made the refitting of Britannia an eye-catching centre- piece of his 1995 Tory leadership campaign. All this reached a kind of zenith in the House of Commons on Wednesday, when Portillo delighted a wide section of his party, and appeared to trump his leadership rival Redwood, by announcing that Britannia was to be replaced, at a cost of pounds 60m, from public funds.

Portillo has run into trouble on two fronts. First, he has been caught playing party politics with the monarchy. Which has upset the very Palace courtiers the announcement was designed to please. He might just have escaped that charge - witheringly levelled by Sir Edward Heath yesterday - had he not made the revealing slip on Sunday of gloating that Labour had been "wrong-footed".

Secondly, he has misjudged public opinion. The poll commissioned immediately after the TV royal debate two weeks ago showed large support for a continuing monarchy. On the other hand, that polling - and rudimentary polling carried out since Portillo's announcement - suggest that most people still think the Royal Family costs the taxpayer too much money. It's all very well saying airily that pounds 60m is just small change to the Treasury. To most ordinary people, innocents as they are, it sounds like rather a lot of money.

It is is easy to put this down to mere misjudgement; goodness knows Portillo has shown questionable judgement before. The gruesome, stomach-turning speech to the 1995 conference trying - and spectacularly failing - to incorporate the SAS as the military wing of the Tory party was only one of several.

But he had seemed to settle down. His conference speech last year was a model of statesmanlike dullness. He can't simply be patronisingly let off as a callow and inexperienced politician. It's not only that he is one of the most intellectually capable British ministers; the reputation he has since rebuilt at the Defence Department is all the more remarkable given the damage he did himself with the SAS speech. Whether it will be undamaged by this latest episode remains to be seen; can the hard-pressed Chiefs of Staff really want the running costs of the yacht to be financed out of the Ministry of Defence's own budget - an idea thought decadent by the former defence minister Alan Clark? It's hardly an example of Front Line First.

The answer is surely at once deeper and more serious. Politicians have a habit of going wrong when they try to be what they aren't. There is a formidable case for saying that's just Portillo's problem. And it's not only that coming from the state-shrinking wing of the party, Portillo had been a formidable spender at the MoD - partly by securing the purchase of hugely expensive weaponry which many of his critics think is of doubtful value in the post-Cold-War era. One of Portillo's great potential strengths as a politician is that he is, like Disraeli, partly an outsider. With a Scottish mother and a brave and distinguished Spanish republican as a father, Portillo has a larger perspective than many of his colleagues. Is the Tory party really so xenophobic that he has to submerge his proud Castilian origins in a sort of mystical Anglo-chauvinism?

The yacht may, in some form, be worth having. Hamish Macrae demonstrated here last week how it could be made to sweat financially in the national interest. But the euphoria that greeted the Portillo announcement harked back to an earlier era in which it was a symbol of a now obsolete imperial pride. The Queen herself, in 1994, made it clear that in the jet age she no longer needed it for travel. And here is the danger for Portillo, especially if he becomes leader of the Tory Party. The world he will seek to inherit will probably be very different. The monarchy may prove to be a rather powerful symbol of how. It's a safe bet it will survive - and an equally safe bet that it will be in a slimmed-down, modernised form. The danger for Portillo, and the case of the yacht is only an example, is that rather like Anthony Eden in the Fifties he will be seeking the highest office just when the ideas with which he rose in politics have been superseded. Of course, it's true that the fault isn't Portillo's alone; the whole Cabinet took the decision. But Portillo wanted the credit. He must surely take the blame.