The deliberately dangerous Mr Portillo

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The Independent Online
WHAT an extraordinary fellow Michael Portillo is. Despite being the Cabinet's youngest and, until a couple of weeks ago, most junior member, he has, over the past 10 months, made himself the centre of more controversy than the rest of the Government put together. What is more, he appears to have done it quite deliberately.

It is not so much that Mr Portillo sets out to shock, it is that he seems to be driven to tell us what sort of man he is. It is as if he looks at his sober, experienced colleagues and his temporising, equivocating boss and says: 'Please, you mustn't think I'm like them. I want to be more than just a competent administrator. I still think that ideas matter, that politics is not just about compromise and careful party management. They may have forgotten the faith or never had it. But not me. I am a believer.'

Because Mr Portillo's letter to Michael Heseltine, castigating the President of the Board of Trade for not volunteering big expenditure savings from his department, was leaked, it falls into a different context from the series of 'big' philosophical speeches which have created such a rumpus this year. But it does provide further evidence of what might be termed Mr Portillo's exceptionalism.

We must first be clear, however, about what in this letter is both unexceptional and unexceptionable. It does not, as has been suggested, show that the Government is potentially lethally split over the conduct of economic policy, as it was in the early Thatcher years. There is no longer any meaningful division between Left and Right within the Tory party over economic issues. Indeed, the most enthusiastic privatisers within the Cabinet are Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, neither on the Right of the party.

On public spending, ministers, as usual, are fighting hard for their own departmental budgets, but everyone is committed to a tight spending round to help Mr Clarke's search for tax cuts next year. As to differences over eventual European monetary union, they are real enough, but have little to do with the economic arguments. There is only one split in the Conservative Party which matters and that is over Europe.

Nor is the purpose of Mr Portillo's letter anything very terrible. Under the terms of the 'fundamental expenditure review' launched 18 months ago, the Treasury and spending departments were charged with finding whole areas which the state might withdraw from entirely. The arguments Mr Portillo deploys against the activities of Mr Heseltine's department are ones any Chief Secretary to the Treasury might make.

He should surely not be criticised too harshly for daring to suggest that subsidising shipbuilding, continuing with 'launch aid' for low-return new aircraft projects and maintaining a separate UK space programme, might be throwing good money after bad.

Of course, he over-eggs his case in supposing that there is no role for regional selective assistance in helping to bring jobs and investment to Britain - you only have to think of the beneficial impact of bringing Nissan to Sunderland on the whole British motor industry. And he may also be guilty of underestimating the enabling role which the DTI plays in helping smaller companies into export markets they would otherwise shy away from. But it is not the job of the Chief Secretary to conduct a detailed cost-benefit analysis of every government programme. It is enough to raise the questions and make sure that they have been properly answered.

So far then, nothing really awful. That said, though, we should make no mistake about it. This is a very rum, very angry letter, a letter which could not conceivably have been written by any other member of the Cabinet. In the first place, it demonstrates a lack of proportion which fairly takes the breath away. The poor old DTI hardly has much of a budget these days to get worked up over. The DTI's spending has been cut by about a half over the past five years to a fairly measly pounds 1.25bn.

Much of the credit for this should go directly to the abused Mr Heseltine, who has been vigorous in removing his department from activities better undertaken by the private sector. Mr Heseltine has also pushed ahead with privatisation of the coal industry in the teeth of backbench opposition and is determined to sell off the Post Office despite the unease of, among others, Mr Major. Mr Heseltine may sometimes cloak himself in the mantle of an interventionist, but he has done far more to streamline the DTI than supposedly more Thatcherite predecessors.

Given that Mr Portillo knows perfectly well that the only way to make a noticeable dent in the public spending total ( pounds 251bn this year) is to go for the big money departments of Social Security, Defence, Health and Education, it must be sheer ideological distaste at the very existence of the DTI which makes him so cross with Mr Heseltine. And cross he must be, because the most extraordinary thing about Mr Portillo's letter is the way he addresses Mr Heseltine. The tone is de haut en bas in the extreme. He reminds Mr Heseltine about the Government's manifesto commitments and accuses him of wilfully misunderstanding the whole purpose of the fundamental expenditure review. He lectures and hectors until, quite literally, the bitter end.

So what, from this and the rest of his turbulent year, are we to make of Mr Portillo? Above all, I think that Mr Portillo is right to regard himself as an exceptional politician. He is a formidably competent minister who has a degree of intellectual and ideological self-confidence that is extremely rare. He also seems to be a man who increasingly has a reckless sense of his own destiny and will do what he believes to be right whatever the consequences. He is brilliant and dangerous in equal measure.

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