Portillo's high-wire rehearsal for power

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The Independent Online
POLITICS must be exciting: dull government may be the best kind, but the essence of politics is argument, and the politicians who fail to make news are fated to sink. Michael Portillo knows this, and has adopted a style which is the antithesis of John Major's - sassy, provocative, faintly threatening. It is, no doubt, an absurdity that he is already being treated as the Tories' leader-in- waiting. But it is a fact.

The dog-days of August have been dominated by his name. Portillo lashes Heseltine over industrial spending. Portillo bashes Brussels over disabled ruling. Portillo to have jolly celebratory party at Alexandra Palace. Portillo to back 'sackers' charter'. Portillo this, Portillo t'other. And all this followed a summer of Portillo speeches and a year of Portillo controversies.

What was the explanation for the story about John Major wanting Stephen Dorrell to succeed him as Tory leader? Do you need to ask? Can you imagine the teeth- grinding irritation in Number 10 at the Portillo-mania? If the hint was genuine, Major was simply trying to pull 'young Michael' down a peg. If not, I would put a side-bet on a leak from the Portillo camp designed to undermine Mr Dorrell.

Now, the common-sensible Conservative reaction to all this has been that 'young Michael' is making a fool of himself. He has been overdoing it. He may not be able to help it (foreign blood) but he is guilty of bad form, self-advertisement and ineptitude.

The row over the use of firms with high numbers of disabled employees for government work explains all that is wrong about Portillo, it is argued. First, he does something nasty. Then he tries to blame it on the Europeans. Then he gets found out. Then he refuses to back down. And certainly, this is an interesting case, though not in the simplistic way outlined above. He was right about the law. He was right to reject 'a nether world in which some laws are applied and some are not'.

The row rumbles on, but what was really interesting about the operation was how Portillo attempted to transmute the dross of an embarrassing announcement about the disabled into golden propaganda for his own world view. He didn't need to say that this was the kind of heartless bureaucratic act that comes inevitably with European integration. He didn't say that the law-abiding nature of the British, and not of foreigners, has long been a pet theme of his. And he didn't actually say that his predecessor David Hunt or his rival Michael Heseltine were responsible for any confusion.

All those messages were implicit, however, in his crisp and unapologetic self-defence. This is a politician with a clear vision who loses few chances to promote it, even when it takes him to the edge of collective Cabinet responsibility (as it did over his dismissal of a single European currency). Margaret Thatcher too was shrewd enough, and shameless enough, to occasionally stand aside from her colleagues and say, in effect: 'Lumme, i'nt it all dreadful, I blame the Government.'

So Portillo continues to stake out an alternative view of Conservativism, hostile to the European project, impatient about the size of the welfare state, while retaining the privileges of office in a government whose rhetoric is different. This is in itself an interesting high-wire act, which compels attention and therefore guarantees further coverage. He feels himself invulnerable, and the occasional leaked snarls from Downing Street (the 'bastards' episode, John Major's alleged readiness to sack him, and his alleged enthusiasm for Dorrell as his successor) tend to confirm Portillo's powerful position, rather than refuting it.

As it happens, there are serious holes in the Portillo philosophy. No one on the right has yet come up with hard, electorally saleable proposals to match the rhetoric of cutting back the state. And he has yet to grapple with his central dilemma, which is that the withdrawal of the state from a large range of activities inevitably lessens its authority. Yet Portillo is an old-fashioned political moralist, who wants the attention and deference that used to go with Westminster power. And there is another matter. Let us be crude about this. No man with a Spanish name will get very far by abusing foreigners: if he appeals to the nasty side of the national character, he will find it nastier than he seems to realise.

Putting all that to one side, however, he still seems likelier than any on the Tory left to represent the future of Conservativism. Granted, there is a competition going on between Portillo's maturity and judgement on the one hand, and his energy and self-confidence on the other. And there is a vast number of people in the Tory party (never mind the country) who hope that he loses that internal race. But his party as a whole has ever yearned for clear voices and has always admired daring. And he is, simply, a quality product.

This, however, may not be good news for the Conservative Party. It is still ridiculously early to make predictions about the next election, as some so confidently do: Tony Blair's arrival as Labour leader has changed many things, but it has not wiped out the likelihood of a couple of years of decent economic growth. But I am no longer sure the Conservatives can avoid the rather obvious trap that Blair's leadership of Labour implies: that is, either move further to the right in order to seem distinctive, so taking up electorally unattractive positions; or stick with undistinctive managerialism and face the full force of 'time for a change'.

Portillo offers no solution to that; indeed, his rampant radicalism seems to look beyond the sensitivities of the next couple of years. One almost gets the feeling one is hearing, muted and coded, the rhetoric that would blast, full- volume, from the Opposition benches at a struggling Labour government - as if we are eavesdropping on an elaborate private rehearsal.

This is not just a problem with Portillo: several leading members of the party of government sound as if they are operating individually; and as if they are thinking ahead about the politics of a defeated Tory party rather than their careers in a continuing Major government. Summer is a bad time to make final judgements about these things; but the rise of Portillo seems somehow inseparable from the floundering confusion of the Conservative administration he serves.