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Thursday, September 9, 1999 Published at 07:35 GMT 08:35 UK

UK Politics

Portillo's calculated gamble

Michael Portillo opposed lowering the gay age of consent

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Michael Portillo's decision to admit to past homosexual experiences represents a massive political and personal gamble.

There is no doubt that the former defence secretary intended to clear the decks before launching his political comeback.

If it works, and the voters and the Tory Party are happy to accept his admission as relatively small beer, then he could pull it off.

But if he fails, he could wreck his entire political career.

While the Labour Party has always been relatively tolerant of homosexuals, the Tories have always been far less liberal.

For example, there has never been a senior Tory who was openly homosexual.

The issue is particularly sensitive for Mr Portillo, however, because he has in the past been at the forefront of Tory MPs' voting against lowering the age of consent for homosexuals.

Also, when defence secretary, he continued the controversial ban on homosexuals in the armed forces.

That has already led to charges of hypocrisy, which could hit his standing both within the Tory Party and within the country as a whole.

[ image: The former defence secretary has waged a lengthy comeback]
The former defence secretary has waged a lengthy comeback
All the old Tory sleaze allegations proved that voters were not ready to put up with politicians whose public statements conflicted with their private behaviour.

And, however Mr Portillo tries to play down his past homosexual experiences, many will wonder why it has taken him so long to put the record straight.

His decision was clearly a calculated attempt to prepare for his political comeback. It also signals his desire to become Tory leader.

He knows that if he ever wants to go for that job then his private life will come under intense scrutiny.

There have been persistent rumours about his private life and his sexuality throughout his time in politics. And he has described some of those as "vile" and part of a campaign to undermine him.

But he obviously believed it was now time to get things out into the open before his leadership ambitions developed much further.

He must also have been afraid of the possibility of being "outed" during that campaign, or later in his career.

He is now banking on the Kensington and Chelsea party accepting his view that these experiences were "very mild and a very long time ago" and that most people's reaction will be, "So what?".

If that turns out to be the case then it will show that the Tory Party is a more liberal organisation than it has shown in the past.

If the calculation is wrong, it could put paid to all his political ambitions even before they have been relaunched.

The method of the revelations also showed just how far he has been going to plan his comeback.

The interview with The Times was given in July and was planned for use later in the year, when he clearly thought he would start launching his campaign for a comeback at the next election.

It was Alan Clark's death which forced the issue and ensured the interview was brought forward, confirming for many Mr Portillo's wish to fight the seat.

His future now lies in the hands of his own party and, more particularly, the same right-wing factions he has previously wooed.

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