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Breakfast with Frost Sunday, 23 June, 2002, 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK
Interview with Michael Portillo MP
Michael Portillo MP
Michael Portillo MP
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: MICHAEL PORTILLO MP JUNE 23RD, 2002

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: This time one year ago the Tory Party was deep in the throes of the leadership contest. William Hague had quit following Tony Blair's second landslide victory and the hot favourite to succeed him was Michael Portillo. But his campaign for the leadership went awry, some say because Michael himself didn't have his heart really in it. On July the 17th he was eliminated and since then he's been very busy with other matters, enjoying music, writing, making radio programmes and making TV films. There's a film on Europe being screened a fortnight today and a remarkable film about the German composer Richard Wagner, or Wagner I suppose would be more accurate...Wagner, Wagner, let's call the whole thing off - which is due out a week later. Here's a clip, shot - as you might guess - in Germany.

[FILM CLIP]

DAVID FROST: "I've seen it all", Michael welcome.

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Good morning David.

DAVID FROST: Art that shook the world, the Wagner story, Wagner in New York in fact, but it's about people who'll do anything for power as you were touching on there.

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Yes.

DAVID FROST: What, what is the lesson about power, is it, that there are people who seek power are going to have a sticky end or is it just a dangerous pursuit?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well that's Richard, Richard Wagner's conclusion is that they have a sticky end and the irony which I go into in the film is that he became a great hero, I'm afraid, of Adolph Hitler and indeed Wagner had some pretty dreadful views himself. But I wonder if Hitler had really understood what the Ring Cycle was about, whether he would have liked it as much or whether he actually might have found it, because it does appear that, that power is a curse and that power is passed from one person to another during the course of these operas and everybody who holds power is destroyed by it.

DAVID FROST: Let's take a look at where you talk about Hitler in the film, coming up right now.

[FILM CLIP]

DAVID FROST: "People in politics beware" was it hot doing that or was it fake, fake flames?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: No, no, no, no that was real flame, that was a circle of flame created with a pipe and gas and the, apparently the secret of this is you have to wear thermal underwear made strictly of cotton, no synthetics, and that keeps the heat away from your body. It did get very, very hot, we had two firemen standing by at all times in case I went up in flames.

DAVID FROST: Like we did with Harold Wilson on one series because his pipe - igniting his pocket. But in terms of Wagner, obviously you say he's the most reviled artist probably ever because of his anti-semitism but if one leaves that on one side, I know in a judgement of him you can't but are there any Wagnerian larger than life characters left in politics today?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I think most of them are, I mean...

DAVID FROST: do you think most of them are larger than life and not caring about the consequences, I mean a Wagner politician wouldn't, wouldn't have a focus group would he?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: No, no, I, I think you see Wagner is not just about politicians it's actually about everybody, he has a lot of characters called the Gods but these Gods are not in any way God-like, they're just like you and me, you know they're ambitious and a bit greedy and they care about their reputations and they want fine and gaudy things and they get led astray by their, by their greed and by their conceit and all these silly things. It's so, it's not really only about great people, it's about everybody.

DAVID FROST: But, absolutely, but I mean was Margaret Thatcher reminiscent of Brunhilde?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: She, I think there are a lot of things that the Tory Party was, was like Wagner, I mean actually there's a thing in the Ring Cycle called the Curse of the Ring, this Ring goes from person to person and everybody who touches it is cursed. I always thought the subject of Europe was a bit like the curse of the ring for the Conservative Party, it was the subject that just wouldn't leave us alone and every leader who came had to pick up this subject called Europe and the curse of Europe, the curse of the Ring passed from leader to leader and destroyed one after the other.

DAVID FROST: And that obsession is still too great on both sides of the House probably?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Yes I mean actually they've been playing it down over the last year on both sides of the House, people haven't wanted to talk very much about it and I don't know whether we're going to turn to this now but I, I, I've made a film about Europe which I guess may not be welcome to everybody because it raises the subject again, but I, I've made a film which I hope is an extraordinarily civilised film, it's so, let's get away from discussing the Euro, there's a much bigger question here, there's a great European vision, a great ideal, a great concept that we're all going to work together and that we'll have no more fear of war or nationalism or jealousy or any of those things, let's discuss it on, in those terms, let's see it there's a, as a big plan, a big vision and see whether we British like that, whether we wouldn't sign up to it.

DAVID FROST: Have you, in doing that one, the Portillo in Euroland have you in addition to that wider point, have you, has, did your views change on any of these things, you talked about the ill-defined European dream but did you make, find the European dream was at least more understandable to you as a result of doing this film?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I mean in a way the European dream is quite appealing to me in the sense that I do think people in politics should have vision, they should have grand ideas and they should be taking people to something better in the future and I'd love in a way to share the dream. I'd say if I changed during this, I think in the following way, when I set out I kept saying to people look don't think about just the Euro, it isn't just about economics, it's about politics. And I went through the journey I thought it's just, it's not just not about economics, it's not really about politics either, it's about psychology. You know our European partners really believe in this vision, they're really keen to do it, they don't understand British reservations, they don't understand...

DAVID FROST: Well because we have a different experience, a different history?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Different experience, we're an island nation, different history. We don't share in the psychology. Now that doesn't make me change my conclusion because I think if you don't share in the psychology, if you don't share in the dream, if you don't share in the vision it would be very unwise to get involved with a lot of people who do because, you know, you're going to end up being very disappointed.

DAVID FROST: Some people think it's rather odd that IDS doesn't want to lead the 'No' campaign, if and when it happens, do you think the Tory leader should lead that?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: No not necessarily, I mean I tell you where that advice has been coming from, it's from the people who are leading the 'No' campaign, I mean the people who brought together the coalition of people and business people who don't want to see Britain going into the Euro. And they say that, you know you've got to get the argument across straight and if it gets complicated with party politics it may be very difficult to put that message across in a straightforward way. You know obviously fewer people voted Tory last time than Labour therefore there might be people who are against the Euro but don't want to be associated with the Tory Party. So there is a problem there.

DAVID FROST: Talking passionately about the problems of politics and so on as you, and about these films and so on, right now which do you fancy most a career in politics or a career in television?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: When I was, when I was small I had two ambitions, one was I wanted to be a prime minister and the other was I wanted to be David Frost...and I've had wonderful luck you see because I've now had a career in politics and I'm doing some work in television. I haven't become David Frost but I...

DAVID FROST: No you're, but you're the first Michael Portillo, that's the important thing isn't it?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I don't terribly want to make the choice, I mean I don't see myself going back to the frontline of politics.

DAVID FROST: Never?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: No I don't see that at all but to continue to be the Member of Parliament for Kensington and Chelsea and to go on making films I think is a delightful combination.

DAVID FROST: And you, so you, all these rumours, you're going to serve, serve out this Parliament as an MP and you're going to continue into the next Parliament?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well I certainly haven't decided to do anything different and at the moment all the things I want to do are compatible and I've now reached that stage in life where I think you don't have to rush into making decisions that you don't need to make. I mean everything's going wonderfully, I've had a terrific year, a completely stress-free year which I must say is a terrific bonus after a lot of years in politics and so I don't want to rush into the next decision. And I'm very fortunate I've been given these opportunities to make what I think are some good films and more coming in the autumn I'm pleased to say.

DAVID FROST: Very good and would you say in fact looking back on it that you're, you were, you may have been bruised at the time by the, not winning the leadership battle but now you're relieved?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I would say I was even relieved at the time in a way, there were three rounds of voting last year and I was top in the first two rounds but actually I didn't have nearly enough votes to feel that I had the mandate that I needed because if I had won I would have made big changes in the Conservative Party and a lot of those changes would not have been popular with the party - I hope they would have been popular beyond. And I really felt I needed a huge mandate, you know I'd need a real showing of support and it wasn't there, it wasn't there in the first round, it wasn't there in the second round - obviously not in the third. So actually I thought it would be terrible trying to do what I wanted to do without that sort of force of mandate.

DAVID FROST: What was the biggest most controversial thing you would have done?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well I would have wanted to make a very big show that the Conservative Party had changed and I think back to the way that Tony Blair had that great fight over Clause 4, in a way it wasn't even a necessary fight but it was a way of demonstrating how the party's moved on. I think in the Conservative Party it might have been over the issue of candidate selection because I think the Tory Party and I think IDS would say the same, needs to move to a situation where its candidates look like the population of the country and it's not just that we don't have enough women and that we don't have enough ethnic minorities - it's also that we don't have enough teachers, nurses and doctors as candidates.

DAVID FROST: So those are changes that you would, you would have introduced. But now you've come to the conclusion that you're going to put, you haven't certainly decided to leave Parliament but to continue as of now and at the same time you never see yourself back in the grind with the front bench?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: No I really, I really don't ever see that and if the BBC goes on being kind to me there'll be more films coming.

DAVID FROST: And I suppose given the big changes you want to introduce people, people talk about IDS bringing the Tory Party back towards the centre, although he's always a right-winger but back towards the centre. But you think it's got to go on and change some more?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well I mean one of the real principles I've had over this last year, you will have noticed that I have disappeared, this is the first time...

DAVID FROST: Six months without a speech in the House of Commons even?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Indeed.

DAVID FROST: People were ailing as a result of that, when is he coming back?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I decided to say nothing at all because there's no way I was going to be a back seat driver, there was no way I was going to allow people to accuse me of carping or sour grapes or whatever and I want to maintain that silence, I mean Iain Duncan Smith must do his own thing in his own way and he's not going to have me having a commentary in the margins.

DAVID FROST: Well thank you for being here, thank you very much Michael.

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Thank you David.

DAVID FROST: And we say...and in fact this Portillo arts festival, we've mentioned two of the things, actually begins this evening on Radio 5 Live, does it not?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: A programme about what happened to FC Barcelona, the football team, in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, a most unusual story.

DAVID FROST: Very much...very topical with the World Cup and Spain, Spain and England sharing alas one other thing together, exiting on the same day. Thank you very much Michael.

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Thank you David.

DAVID FROST: Michael Portillo.

END

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