Perplexed by the progress of Mr Portillo

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Of all the movements - perhaps I should write the whims and fancies - of modern politics, the one I comprehend least is what may be called the Portillo phenomenon. Do not misunderstand me. I wish him no ill. I can take him or leave him. But let us look at the narrative of events.

It began with our ejection from the exchange-rate mechanism in autumn 1992. It was obvious that, sooner or later, Lord Lamont would have to resign as Chancellor. The rumour went round Westminster that his successor would be Mr Michael Portillo; more, that he would in due course succeed Mr John Major as prime minister. "Look over there, darling," women would say to their companions in the foyers of West End theatres, "there's Michael Portillo."

It continues to elude me why, all of a sudden, Mr Portillo should have become a public personality, recognised in theatres, restaurants and the like. Though, as I often say, it is rude to make personal remarks, and I am no oil painting myself, it is not as if he is specially good-looking. His hair is all wrong. It is not that his lips are thick - nothing the matter with that - but that they are an unpleasing shape. Perhaps he is just not my type.

He was evidently the type for lots of other people. Tributes to his handsome appearance flowed from the presses, as they still do. But it was not enough to have him made Chancellor in succession to Lord Lamont. That job went to Mr Kenneth Clarke, who held it until the election. Instead Mr Portillo continued as Chief Secretary until 1994, when he became Employment Secretary, after which he went to Defence. It was in this last capacity that he - who, like most modern politicians, had never heard a shot fired either in anger or even at all - made his shameful speech at Bournemouth invoking the SAS.

If anything, he became even more notorious for the episode of the telephone lines. In 1995 Mr Major resigned as leader of the Conservative Party but remained as Prime Minister. Whether he was constitutionally entitled to follow this course remains doubtful. Her Majesty, as far as I know, raised no objection. But then, Buckingham Palace is in such a state of abject terror these days that the politicians can get away with virtually anything they like.

Mr John Redwood stood against Mr Major in the first ballot, much to the latter's surprise. Mr Portillo, who had been seen as the standard bearer of the Tory Right, professed his loyalty to the Prime Minister. But he allowed additional telephone lines to be installed in a convenient Westminster house to be used as his headquarters in any second ballot.

The person behind their installation was Mr David Hart, a combination of Meddlesome Mattie and Keyhole Kate. He had been flitting round the upper reaches of Conservative governments since the 1980s. When Mr Ferdinand Mount was head of Lady Thatcher's policy unit, he tried to have Mr Hart ejected from No 10 but did not achieve complete success. Now Mr Hart had popped up again installing telephone lines.

In the event they turned out to be unnecessary. Mr Major won by polling 66 per cent of the vote. Lord Cranborne, his campaign manager, immediately declared he had won a crushing victory; he and assistants rushed to the microphones to proclaim that truth; television and the newspapers duly accepted it as such.

Manifestly, it was nothing of the kind. And Lord Cranborne gave a slightly different version of events when he appeared in the recent television series about Mr Major. He described him "clinging to office like a limpet". No matter. In 1995 Mr Hart's telephone lines proved surplus to Mr Portillo's requirements. But he could have prevented their installation in the first place if he had wanted to do this.

Even so, this episode did little to discredit Mr Portillo in the eyes of his supporters immediately before the 1997 election. The contest they had in their sights was of him against Mr Michael Heseltine, a straight competition between right and left; two views on Europe; youth and age; economic liberalism and Tory corporatism. The contest was never to come about owing to the voters of Enfield Southgate, who deprived Mr Portillo of his seat - and to the views of Anne, Mrs Heseltine, who forbade her husband to contest any more leaderships after a recurrence of his heart trouble shortly after the election. So that is why the Tories ended up with Mr William Hague.

When Mr Portillo went down from Peterhouse, Cambridge, his tutor, Mr Maurice Cowling, advised him to seek a career in middle management. To his credit, Mr Portillo told this story himself in a speech at a party to mark Mr Cowling's departure from his Fellowship.

I used to visit Peterhouse fairly often myself in the 1970s as Mr Cowling's guest, though my path did not cross Mr Portillo's. The college has recently been written about as if in those days it was a latter-day Sodom - or maybe Gomorrah. It has always had a tradition both of High Anglicanism and of High Tory Tomfoolery. Together, these tendencies invariably produce a silly atmosphere. But there were plenty of girls about too, not in the college (which had not admitted them at that stage) but in the university: many more than there had been in my time 20 years before.

It does not seem that Mr Portillo's youthful homosexual flings have done him any harm. Kensington and Chelsea is as tolerant as Cambridge; perhaps more so. I hope it stays that way. Nor is there the slightest purpose in making him hang about on the back benches until Mr Hague next juggles with the Shadow Cabinet. Mr John Maples, who looks after foreign affairs, and Mr Francis Maude, who does Treasury matters, are both what the civil servants call "able". Mr Maples is on the left of the party. I do not believe a word of what he has been saying lately about Europe. He is married to the television presenter Ms Jane Corbin, a perfectly respectable union about which both, for some reason, like to keep quiet. Mr Maude is the son of Angus Maude, a bad-tempered but intelligent Tory - friend of and collaborator with Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod. He really belonged to the 1950s, was taken on board by Margaret Thatcher but never seemed entirely comfortable with her.

Whatever the qualities of Mr Maude or Mr Maples, the trouble is that the public has never heard of them. This is not necessarily to a politician's discredit. The public had hardly heard of Anthony Crosland either. But when the only member of your front bench who is recognised at all is Miss Ann Widdecombe, something clearly needs to be done. Mr Portillo could make the noises that Mr Maples makes and more or less believe them. Or he could take over from Mr Maude and receive more public attention for his hours of toil with Treasury documents. When you are in opposition, they do not give you the figures.

Mr Hague knows that Mr Portillo is going to challenge him at some point, probably not before the election, almost certainly afterwards, if he loses. Whether Mr Portillo is given a big shadow job now or later - inasmuch as any such job can be big - is going to make no difference to the treatment that will be given to him by the press between now and the election. Political journalists will scrutinise his speeches as if they were Latin texts in the search for splits, slights, rebellions and "gaffes" - a word solely confined to the newspapers. From now on Mr Portillo's every word will be examined for signs of division from his leader.