Passion without humility

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The Independent Online
WHOSE fool is Michael Portillo? Sir, Madam, you are right: Mr Portillo is nobody's fool. One of those blamed for wrecking John Major's 'back to basics' theme by ill-considered moralising, he has not only survived that embarrassment, but been enhanced by it. He has declined to apologise to anyone. Last Friday he made a speech on national decline that grabbed news editors' notice. He was then anointed as the right's choice to succeed Mr Major: there was a benediction from the saintly George Gardiner, and a chorus of Ave Margaret from Father Parkinson.

Ah, you may say, but the Thatcherites are no longer in control. Mr Portillo's admirers are priests on the run, loathed by the Prime Minister. This is true. As to whether Mr Major really talked about 'fucking crucifying' the right, we must trust his word. But even if he was misreported, does it follow that he was misrepresented?

I think not. Mr Major's views about the right and, indeed, his lurid turns of phrase in private, are well-known. Mr Portillo is not his bete noir, but the behaviour of the Thatcherite disloyalists rouses him to fury. So even if he didn't say it then, it is the sort of thing he would say, and has said. Or if not, there must be another fellow hanging round central London who looks like him.

But this crucifixion can only be a private fantasy for Mr Major. The curses are a sign of his frustration in being able to do nothing but curse. In reality, anything which drove Mr Portillo out of the Government would be suicidal. Can you imagine the impact of that minister calling an impromptu press conference to declare that he could not, in all conscience, carry on serving a leader who attacked him behind his back and believed in nothing? A leadership challenge would be virtually automatic.

Who would the grandees of the Tory party then support? No - I mean the real grandees, the editors of the Mail, the Express and the Sun? Kenneth Clarke, probably; but dashing, high-principled and impetuous Mr Portillo would be in a strong position. He has become the candidate with sex appeal, the Prince Rupert of the Right.

At any rate, I don't believe Mr Major could survive such a cataclysm. Without it, he probably can. Until the Tory party panics, this is a question of character, even of soul. It seems that every sneer, betrayal and misfortune now toughens the Prime Minister, where once they weakened him and increased the chance of a sudden resignation. There is a clenched, head-down quality about him now, a deep and angry determination not to be hounded out of office.

Where does this leave the right generally and Mr Portillo in particular? There is a long-term strategy and a shorter-term one. Some on the right think that the party is doomed to lose the next election under either Mr Major or Mr Clarke. Mr Portillo and friends should carefully keep their distance from this looming disaster, mark out a different policy (as with their different emphasis on 'back to basics') and wait for the party to fall into their lap while Labour messes up government.

Alternatively, the right-wing hotheads' strategy would be to prepare for a leadership crisis soon and try to sell the country a reconditioned Tory government in 1995-6, just as Mr Major offered a break from Thatcherism in 1992. The danger is that Mr Clarke would probably win the contest, might then win the general election, and, recalling the mistakes of the Major government, would be far more robust with Thatcherite rebels.

My guess is that Mr Portillo has little appetite for an early trial of strength. It is the gambler's option and despite his relative youth, his Castilian pride and the head-turning praise of his followers, he has so far moved with caution, and been well rewarded for it.

Now he is working to broaden his base. Last Friday's impassioned philippic against the 'self-destructive sickness of national cynicism' must have struck a chord throughout the party. 'A country which places no value on its national characteristics cannot be stable or prosperous for long. Self-doubt gnaws away at the sinews of our institutions and weakens the nation. An elite that raises up heroes merely for the enjoyment of pulling them down again is indeed sick.'

For most Conservatives, these words are true, raw and timely.

And for others. I thought there was an edge of real pain in the speech, going far beyond clever political placing: it was a hot speech, not a cool one. Whatever your politics, it's hard to deny that the continuity and authority of institutions does matter. There has been a breakdown of national self-respect. We are a cynical lot, growing up as instinctive satirists before we have a chance to become citizens. Our public culture could be summarised as depression tempered by prurience. All of this probably hurts politicians - who want to thrive in and be judged by that culture - more than the rest of us. It is reassuring to know that they are hurt.

Where the right, and Mr Portillo, get it 100 per cent wrong is in their tone, their lashing about at anonymous villains. Mr Portillo variously attacked 'so- called opinion-formers within the British elite . . . a self-proclaimed elite . . . the new establishment' for rotting the nation's institutions. But no names. He declined to explain whether he meant members of his own party, the Bishop of Durham, Martin Amis or the editor of the Sun. Since he urges less tolerance towards the spreaders of poison - 'we must temper our traditional tolerance when confronted by those whose stock-in- trade is to belittle and to undermine the fabric of our society' - it would helpful to know at whom the four minutes' hate was aimed.

After 14 years of power, including some catastrophic mistakes, this is not the moment for the stabbing finger. A little humility and humour would work wonders, but every sulphurous new theory, such as 'the New British Disease' merely echoes back at those who are supposed to lead society, the politicians.

Who, after all, is Mr Portillo if not an elite opinion-former, a pillar of the new establishment, and a Thatcherite hammerer of institutions? You see? These are days when all vague ministerial denunciations are likely to rebound. In this case, cynicism is too well-founded and widespread to be blamed on an elite conspiracy. Perhaps I'm just jaundiced, but I suspect that if the Committee of Public Safety is really intent on eradicating national self- doubt, it may have to arrest and lead away most of the thinking population.

Politicians have lost authority, not been robbed of it, and must patiently work to regain it. Mr Portillo is certainly nobody's fool, a rising man whose influence in the party grows almost daily. But until the leaders of the Tory right understand the limitations which cynicism about past failures places on their old and aggressive style of politics, their internal jostling won't matter a damn - because they won't be heard by the country.

(Photograph omitted)