Portillo, an idea on the move

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The Independent Online
IT'S THAT man again. Michael Portillo, the most self- confident, energetic and intellectual of the New Tories, perhaps our next Prime Minister, dominated yesterday's party conference in a way that his leader may envy. He is clearly in the business of adjusting himself, if not reinventing himself. The end result will not only be interesting for his prospects of leading the country; it will tell us a lot about the Tory party, too.

The great fallacy of the Conservative left is to believe that the party was not radically changed by Margaret Thatcher, that it is still possible to go back, to recover the movement of Macmillan and Heath. After the fall of the lady, they thought they would come into their inheritance again, and normality would be resumed. This proved to be a mistake. The party has evolved into something different, with a centre of gravity that is much nearer Portillo than the remaining Heathites or 'One Nation' Tories.

There has never been a period in the history of the Conservative Party when the contradictory instincts of laissez-faire and of statism or paternalism were not in conflict. Thatcherism did not spring, fully armed, from a handbag. It was a vivid and determined re-emergence of earlier strains of Tory thinking that go back to the dawn of modern politics.

Even as the Liberal governments at the beginning of the century were laying plans for a welfare state, bodies such as the Tory- dominated British Constitutional Association were campaigning for 'personal liberty and responsibility' and warning that 'no legislation will make a people religious, or moral, or temperate, or industrious . . .' These ideas passed through to the Anti-Socialist Union, and the wonderfully named Middle Class Defence League.

British politics is a small club: one of the most important carriers of the libertarian torch was Tony Benn's uncle, the fiercely free-market Tory Sir Ernest Benn, who lamented in 1930 that 'This generation turns to government as its grandfathers turned to God, and looks upon it as an ever-present help in trouble.' (He even founded a newspaper to propagate his ideas. It was called the Independent.) The torch was picked up by Enoch Powell, by the Institute of Economic Affairs and by the familiar 'Thatcherite' think-tanks of today.

So when Portillo argues that 'our highest goal is to minimise the size of the state, so that the individual can increasingly take responsibility for his own actions' he is reasserting a strand of Tory thinking that has been present throughout this century.

That is where he comes from. What has changed is that Thatcher took these ideas to the heart of the party and changed its centre of gravity: anti-statism and even libertarianism are today respectable in the mainstream of the Conservative Party. She once described herself as the rebel leader of a conservative government. But her followers today are hardly rebels. Portillo, the Prince Regent of Thatcherism, has his collected thoughts packaged under the title Clear Blue Water, being hawked round the party at pounds 4.95.

He always had a claque of young enthusiasts. His support seems far wider now - yesterday white- haired ladies were whooping and roaring alongside the moist-faced maniacs. John Major may have been sitting in his hotel-room throwing Hob-Nobs at the television, but on the evidence of Bournemouth, his party loves Portillo.

Any consummation, however, is for the future. Major looks secure enough at the moment, and Portillo is working away at spreading his support ever more securely through the centre ground of the Conservative Party - the electorate of MPs which will one day choose between him and a centre- left candidate such as Kenneth Clarke or Stephen Dorrell. Entirely predictably, he has been using the rhetoric of High Toryism to extend his appeal. So when he spoke about scroungers, there was little of the jeering tone of last year, and a long passage about the pain of being unemployed. And when he spoke later to the faithful about Britain's place in the world ('heritage . . . influence . . . permanent seat on the UN Security Council . . . G7 . . . armed forces the best in the world . . .') the words, if not the voice, were Hurd's. On Europe, he was almost boring. The acne-pack must have felt a bit let down.

More fundamentally, Portillo is trying to reconcile the fervent anti-statism of his early career with a wider feeling that the time has come to reassert a less harsh and more community-minded brand of Toryism. There is a wider perspective: after Thatcher, right- wing thinkers have diverged into those seeking more radical reform, a more aggressive libertarianism, and the so-called 'civic Conservatives' who stress inter-dependence and localism. Portillo's attempted synthesis was a fascinating mix of High Toryism and neo-Liberalism: 'We must remind voters why we seek to liberate the talents of the individual and to reduce their dependency on the state. Not simply because we oppose high public spending - though we do - but because the essence of community is the active individual. No economy can be dynamic, no community stable, without a body of citizens who feel they have control over their lives and destinies . . . .'

This is the start of a serious argument. But Portillo is not there yet, not by a long way. For instance, like Thatcher, he relies very heavily for his idea of community on strong families. Fine. But this is the man who opposed paternity leave, and who celebrates an economy that obliges working parents to spend longer and longer away from their children. In the end, he seems to consider labour- market flexibility to be more important than the family.

Then there is the question of institutions. Portillo, with some justice, said that: 'When Labour politicians speak of community, they mean local government.' But at local level, which institutions does he rely on for spreading community feeling? The implication is, quangos. Yet the rise of unelected, bureaucratic, centralist and secretive public services is becoming one of the controversies of our time - to the surprise of all those involved, a Charter 88 meeting on quangos was packed with irate Tories yesterday.

Third, and most important of all, there is the problem of authority. Portillo placed himself in his main conference speech firmly in the tradition of 'Pitt, Disraeli, Salisbury and Churchill' and asserted, 'We are the greatest parliamentary democracy on earth.' But the most potent message of radical Tory politics has been that the state is, in fact, pretty lousy at most of what it does. It is pulling back and losing most of its old power. So on what basis do today's leaders claim a right to moralise and be listened to? The argument doesn't cohere.

In the end, paternalist High Toryism, which lays claim to a special authority because of its compact with the ruled, does not combine easily with robust anti- statism - which is why the two political instincts have been at war in the party for so long. Some of Portillo's old friends believe he was never as ideological as he seemed, and his positioning makes tactical sense. But if he is to succeed at the top of politics, he needs to choose - either to recoil to his early instincts, or to try to thicken and age into a High Tory. Since so much of the party will follow him, his choice may matter to us all.

(Photograph omitted)