Campaign to unseat Portillo divides the seat that time forgot

Paul Waugh,Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 01 March 2003 01:00

Chelsea Conservative Club is not an ostentatious place. It may be located in the King's Road, but to the casual observer its nondescript frontage would be easy to miss amid the chi-chi shops and restaurants.

Nevertheless, it seems somehow fitting that the club's neighbouring World's End boutique has a huge clock in its window with its hands slowly moving anticlockwise. For in the world of Kensington and Chelsea Tories, time literally travels backwards.

Michael Portillo, the constituency's MP, certainly has good reason to feel as if he were an extra in Groundhog Day. Seven years after Nicholas Scott, one of his predecessors, was deselected, the former defence secretary faces a similar threat. Mr Portillo's broadside against Iain Duncan Smith last week has prompted his critics to begin a campaign calling for his removal. Parts of Britain's wealthiest constituency were flooded with leaflets declaring "Portillo Must Go" on Thursday.

Henry Curteis, a former member of the UK Independence Party, who is leading the campaign, said: "People have been very interested in what I have to say. I want to make sure people can do something if they are unhappy."

Kensington and Chelsea can justifiably claim to be the poshest parliamentary seat in the land. It is stuffed with manicured private gardens, elegant Georgian squares and 4x4s. But the seat also boasts working-class Tories and the Chelsea Conservative Club is their spiritual heart. In the club's bar yesterday was the former Chelsea footballer Alan Hudson, and he was not keen on Mr Portillo. "I'll never forget the one time he did bother to come here," he said. "He sat over there with other dressed up people and didn't even say hello to the regulars. He wouldn't get my vote."

Other party members certainly share this sense of disdain for their MP. One long-standing member of the association said Mr Portillo failed to attend Parliament regularly and upset many people by not turning up to their lunch at last year's Tory party conference in Bournemouth.

One local councillor said that Mr Portillo was "not a figure who inspires enormous personal affection".

But most members contacted yesterday had only praise for their man. "Michael is, of all the MPs I have worked with, easily the most assiduous in terms of writing to you with constituents' concerns raised in his surgeries. He is active, organised, hardworking and interested," said one.

And although several members have been busy ringing to complain about Mr Portillo's recent rocking of the Tory boat, few can see how deselection is a serious prospect. Any member could seek to put a motion from the floor at this month's AGM. But, as one councillor said: "Even if you could get a proposer and a seconder, most people will think it in rather bad taste to challenge the MP."

Mr Portillo himself was unimpressed with the attempt to unseat him. In a brief statement, he said: "The leaflets are coming from a member of UKIP and I refuse to give oxygen to anything he says."

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