Right place for now nicely with all the rest who keeps movingmoves with the times flexible foe

Profile; Malcolm Rifkind; Why is an ex-Heathite wooing Eurosceptics? Stephen Castle on a clever loner
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Even for a politician as hardened as Malcolm Rifkind, this Friday may not be the ideal 50th birthday. Behind the Renaissance battlements of Florence's Fortezza da Basso, the Foreign Secretary will be playing out another tortured stage in Britain's fast-backfiring beef battle with Europe. Few are expecting the champagne to flow, even for the birthday boy.

That a one-time Heathite Tory should be the architect of Britain's greatest recent clash with Europe is a cause of anger among Tory Europhiles, and suspicion among right-wingers. At Westminster there is talk of the Reinvention of Malcolm Rifkind; critics call it blatant pragmatism.

Rifkind, after all, has form. He resigned from the Opposition front bench in 1976 when Margaret Thatcher ended the party's commitment to Scottish devolution, only to become a staunch defendant when he entered her Cabinet, a decade later, as Secretary of State for Scotland.

But pragmatism is hardly the whole story. During his 17 years in government Rifkind has been renowned as much for digging in under duress as for giving in. In her memoirs, Lady Thatcher described him as "erratic", "unpredictable" and "childish". He quarrelled, too, with John Major, over the way in which British Rail should be privatised. He has considered quitting the Government at least once. Indeed, old Treasury hands will tell you that Rifkind resignation threats used to come around as regularly as the seasons - in the first week of October as the public spending negotiations were reaching their climax. But somehow Rifkind, at 50, is still there, and being talked of as a possible future leader.

RIFKIND comes from a family of Jewish emigres, who left Lithuania for Edinburgh to escape the late-19th century pogroms. Though his father, Elijah, grew up in some hardship in a family of 10, Malcolm himself enjoyed a comfortable upbringing and went to the grant- aided George Watson's College.

When he started at Edinburgh University, he was a Liberal supporter but, before the end of his law degree course, he had switched to Conservatism. There were no damascene visions: the Liberals were nice people but too dull. Not that Rifkind himself, who still has the gangling appearance of the school swot, was exactly a Sixties swinger. He was, said one university friend, "more likely to be poring over the life of Palmerston than going to pop concerts".

After graduating, Rifkind took an MSc in political science and taught the subject at University College of Rhodesia. This was when Ian Smith's white supremacist regime had declared UDI but, according to one of his students, Rifkind pitched his lectures just right. "He had the ability not to cause offence to the white right, although they knew he did not agree with them. At the same time he was popular with the black students." In Salisbury, the capital, Rifkind met Edith Steinberg, a Lancashire-born zoologist. They married in 1970 and have a son and a daughter.

Rifkind's political ascent on his return from Rhodesia was rapid - election to Edinburgh City Council in 1970; an unsuccessful parliamentary candidacy at Edinburgh Central in the same year (when he qualified as an advocate); election for Edinburgh Pentlands in 1974. At 28, he was an MP. Before his 31st birthday, he already had a front-bench position and a resignation from it behind him. He quoted Lord Salisbury: resignation, like adultery, is most difficult the first time.

He was thought to be on the liberal wing of the party. But his attitude was best illustrated by his answer to a question about what the Tory party would be like in 10 years' time: "In power." Then, as now, his views were a curious, unideological mixture. He favoured judicial corporal punishment, arguing that "a short, sharp beating" was better than "locking people up in confined spaces". Scotland, in particular, he said, imprisoned too many people and he wanted more probation and community service orders, as well as beatings, as an alternative.

In 1979, when the Conservatives returned to power, Rifkind went straight into government as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Scotland. Later, he moved to the Foreign Office. There was no doubting his ambition. Offered responsibility for passports and consular services, he insisted that he wanted "a bit of the world". He got eastern Europe. By 1984, when Thatcher was demanding "our money" back from Brussels, Rifkind was the man agreeing the fine detail in the ante-chambers of the Fontainebleau summit. Two years later, he was Secretary of State for Scotland and the youngest member of the Cabinet.

He pushed through Thatcherite policies: the poll tax (of which he was an architect) and privatisation of the Scottish Housing Agency, electricity and buses. It was not enough for the fiercer spirits in Scottish Conservatism. When the prime minister appointed one of Rifkind's own junior ministers, the very right-wing Michael Forsyth, as chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party, it provoked months of internecine warfare. For a time, it seemed that Rifkind was finished. On the second day of the 1990 Scottish party conference, the minister awoke to headlines of an imminent Forsyth putsch. At noon, Rifkind rose to speak: "It's 12 o'clock and I'm still here," he said, to warm applause.

If Forsyth had the ideological high road, Rifkind took an effective political low road. He was backed by his junior ministers and by the bulk of the party. Thatcher had to keep him. Forsyth stood down as party chairman.

Thatcher's downfall was no cause of sorrow to Rifkind, who is said to have considered standing in the leadership election. Under Major, he became Secretary of State for Transport, then Defence and, finally, Foreign Secretary. The Eurosceptics didn't want him in that position but, once again, Rifkind had prevailed.

THAT he did so is a tribute to his powers of intellect and his political skills. Rifkind's ability to deliver detailed speeches with no more than a few notes is legendary - when the autocue became available at Tory party conferences the joke was that the only way for Malcolm to show off his brilliance now was to perform blindfold.

One ex-whip describes him as "one of the few people you can sit behind at the dispatch box knowing there is no danger of being hit by enemy fire". Clever, organised, conscientious, Rifkind shocked civil servants on his first day at the Department of Transport by arriving at the office an hour before them. Even enemies describe him as one of the most accomplished performers of his generation.

But they are less flattering about his core of beliefs, which remain obscure. His instincts remain those of a well-read, intellectual Edinburgh internationalist. Indeed, some would say he has never really left the city of his birth - he returns there whenever possible. At a lunch last year, it was put to the minister that he had always been a nationalist with a small "n". One of his closest supporters quickly chipped in: "And a Conservative with a small 'c'."

Yet his views on the great economic issues such as taxation and the welfare state are something of a mystery. Even on Europe he made few speeches in his Scottish Office years. Parliamentary chums are largely drawn from the left (Douglas Hurd or Michael Ancram for example) but he has a close and puzzling friendship with David Hart, the ultra right-wing cheer-leader for Michael Portillo. The Rifkinds have frequently visited Mr Hart's Scottish hunting lodge.

A lawyer at heart, Rifkind seems to be guided more by the intellectual coherence of an argument than by a set of clear first principles. As one ally put it: "Not only is he clever but he knows he's clever. Once he is convinced he's right he will prosecute that view endlessly, taking on the Prime Minister if necessary."

Thus his shift over Europe has been gradual and well argued. At Defence a "sceptic" speech put down a marker. Last September he outlined his vision of a foreign policy under which "occasionally it may be appropriate to accept a loss of influence if it is the only way to protect our interests". (He quoted, as an example, France's decision to opt out of Nato). Then the Foreign Secretary made it known that he backed sceptic demands for a referendum on a single currency and a White Paper on Britain's negotiating position in the European inter-governmental conference.

This repositioning has mirrored the change in the Conservative Party's centre of gravity and the growing expectation of a leadership vacancy. Rifkind has taken to inviting selected backbenchers for long, ruminatory meetings. Some sceptics have been dined and impressed.

The Foreign Secretary's ambitions face several hurdles: a marginal seat which could fall at the election, his Jewishness (which, whatever MPs say publicly, is still important in the Tory party), and a lack of a natural party following.

Most of all, the beef crisis, and the way the tough tactics have backfired, has harmed him. Critics point to the "Kenneth Baker syndrome" whereby a left-winger who moves rightwards angers his old friends and remains distrusted by the right. But Rifkind has faced down Thatcher and got every job he wanted. As one colleague put it, "He always seems to come out of the scrum holding the ball."