Portillo seen as 'the king in waiting'

AT THE Politico's bookshop stand in the wings of the Conservative Party conference, copies of a 1995 biography of Michael Portillo were selling like hot cakes. In contrast, a newly published collection of William Hague's speeches piled high on the shelves - there were few takers.

The title of Michael Gove's book, Michael Portillo -The Future of the Right, looked rather unfortunate when its subject unexpectedly lost his Enfield Southgate seat in last year's Tory election rout.

Now, unmistakably, Mr Portillo is back. The Tory faithful flocked to his two fringe meetings in Bournemouth this week. They queued patiently to ask him and Baroness Thatcher for their autographs on napkins, leaflets and scraps of paper at the Conservative Way Forward dinner.

The next day, the Portillistas were out in force to roar him on as he attacked Tony Blair as a "Karaoke Conservative" at a packed meeting of 400 peopleand appealed to all Tories to "row in behind the leadership".

Despite the adulation, Mr Portillo has had an uncomfortable week. While his presence may have given Tory morale a much-needed boost, it also posed a potential problem for Mr Hague. The Tory leader wants Mr Portillo back in Parliament to play a leading role in his Shadow Cabinet.

He is said to be "totally relaxed" about Mr Portillo's high profile and convinced of Mr Portillo's loyalty. But everyone knows Mr Portillo still wants to be Tory leader. The media is bound to portray him as the king over the water who might rescue the party if Mr Hague fails to mount a successful fightback against Labour.

Michael Heseltine claimed mischievously last week that "serious people" in the party were planning to replace Mr Hague with Mr Portillo, and to adopt a more hardline policy on Europe by saying the Tories would never join the single currency.

Mr Hague and Mr Portillo were both furious. "Hezza is a disgrace," snapped a Hague aide. Mr Portillo told friends that Mr Heseltine was trying to blacken his name to give some cover to his own attack on the Tory leader.

But protest as they did, the speculation about Mr Portillo's intentions was inevitable - and was not confined to Mr Heseltine. "The trouble is that Portillo has the X-factor, which William does not; he has charisma," said a left-wing Tory MP who felt Mr Hague made a lacklustre conference speech on Thursday.

Mr Portillo feels he cannot win. If he had stayed away from the conference he might have been accused of abandoning Mr Hague in his hour of need. By turning up, he was bound to be accused of positioning himself in the Tory leadership stakes.

Fully aware of such sensitivities, he telephoned Mr Hague before making his first fringe speech and asked: "Is there anything you want me to say?" There wasn't, but the Hague camp saw the move as a sign of his good intentions.

The leadership also rejects Mr Heseltine's charge that Mr Hague was "set up" when Mr Portillo interviewed him on a rainy Yorkshire moor while making his recent Channel 4 television series. Mr Hague had been briefed in advance about the location and Gregor Mackay, his press secretary, was watching off-camera. However, Mr Heseltine was not alone in thinking that the programme reinforced Mr Portillo's stature at the obvious expense of Mr Hague.

"It was a mistake," a Hague loyalist admitted. "Portillo looked like a big beast and Hague a little boy. It was painful to watch."

All the same, it remains fanciful to suggest Mr Portillo can replace Mr Hague before the next general election. First, he would have to return to the Commons in a by-election. Although he may have his eyes on the safe Cities of London and Westminster seat, Peter Brooke, the sitting Tory MP and former Northern Ireland Secretary, seems in no hurry to give way to him.

Second, it would not be easy to dislodge Mr Hague. Under new rules, a majority of Tory MPs would have to oppose the party leader in a vote of confidence to force a leadership contest - a much higher hurdle than existed in John Major's day.

Things would have to be pretty dire for MPs to sack Mr Hague without giving him one general election shot.

And there is no guarantee that Mr Portillo would win; other candidates would enter the race. Nor does he enjoy universal support on the Tory right. Some have not forgiven him for failing to support John Redwood's challenge against Mr Major in 1995. Mr Redwood offered to be his number two but Mr Portillo hesitated, while his over-zealous acolytes installed telephone lines in their putative campaign headquarters.

Mr Portillo's critics claim he didn't run because he believed the Tories would lose the general election, and was biding his time in the hope of becoming leader afterwards - as he would almost certainly have done if he had not lost his seat.

Similarly, Mr Portillo rejected feelers from the Hague camp about his becoming Tory chairman after Mr Hague won the leadership. Was Mr Portillo keeping his distance, so that he could be a leader-in-waiting if things got tough? His friends insist not, saying he wanted "time out" to discover whether he wanted to return to politics.

Now there is no doubting his appetite for it, and he has relaunched himself as a compassionate Conservative with a softer image. "He looks different," one Tory woman delegate said. "The bouffant hair is normal now; even those pursed lips look smaller." Some doubt the political conversion is real, but most Tories agree Mr Portillo draws the right lessons from last year's massacre.

Mr Portillo will influence the new Tory policy agenda, but Mr Hague will remain in the driving seat - for the time being, at least.

"Michael now knows he wants to be leader; he is hungry for it again," said one Portillo supporter. "But he also knows he will have to wait."

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