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Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 13:42 GMT
Portillo's leadership ambitions
Tory leader William Hague and Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo
William Hague should still fear Michael Portillo
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

No matter how many times he denies it, most Tory MPs still believe Michael Portillo harbours ambitions to be their next leader.

More importantly, they are convinced his greatest desire is to be the next Tory prime minister - and the two are not necessarily compatible.

So it came as no great surprise that Mr Portillo told the Daily Telegraph, when asked, that he had "no ambition to be leader of the Conservative Party".

He has said it time and again since he was re-elected to parliament last year but, to misquote his own words, nobody seems to believe him. And of course they don't.

Everybody still remembers Michael Heseltine's insistence that he could "see no circumstances" under which he would challenge Margaret Thatcher for the Tory leadership.

It was a carefully crafted phrase designed to stop press speculation while, at the same time, leaving him an escape route.

And when the circumstances changed, as they were always bound to do, he went for it.

Nothing new

The same is probably true of Mr Portillo. His phrase is that he has "no ambition" to be Tory leader.

Well, ambitions also change and, should the opportunity arise after the next election, most believe he could be persuaded to go for the top job.

Mr Portillo's calculations will be about whether the Tories have a realistic chance of winning the election after next.

But this is not to suggest that Mr Portillo has said anything new or revelatory.

He did not volunteer his latest words as part of some Byzantine plot - he simply responded to a question in the same manner he has done numerous times before.

What is certainly true, however, is that there has been a huge amount of speculation in Westminster of late about Mr Portillo.

Many of his old admirers, who saw him as the natural successor to Margaret Thatcher, have become disillusioned with him.

They were prepared to accept his homosexual past, but were dismayed by his attempt to re-invent himself.

The Portillo they adored was a hard-line Thatcherite who hated single mothers and social security scroungers but loved the SAS and the forces of law and order.

No trust

Suddenly they were presented with a "touchy-feely" compassionate Conservative, and they don't like it.

Mr Portillo's performances against Chancellor Gordon Brown have also not matched expectations and ther have even been rumours that he is fed up with politics and is ready to quit.

Few believe that. They think his recent conversion was less to do with contrition born out of his years in the wilderness and much more about positioning for a future leadership challenge. But the tactic may have backfired.

His old allies no longer love him and the One Nation Tories still don't trust him.

That means a future leadership challenge will be fraught with difficulties.

What is almost certain, however, is that whenever that challenge comes Mr Portillo will be a contender.

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See also:

29 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Portillo: 'I'm not quitting'
02 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Portillo turns back on No Turning Back
03 Oct 00 | Conservatives
Portillo's symbolic speech
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