BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK Politics
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Wednesday, 13 June, 2001, 10:06 GMT 11:06 UK
Portillo, the Thatcherite who turned
Michael Portillo
Mr Portillo is bookies' favourite to lead the Tories
After false dawns and missed chances in 1995 and 1997, Michael Portillo was the first candidate to announce that he would stand in the Tory leadership contest.

He was originally the bookies' favourite to replace William Hague, a man who might never have become leader had Mr Portillo not lost his seat in the Tory wipe out of the 1997 general election.

Portillo's CV
Born May 1953
Elected MP for Enfield-Southgate in 1984
Assistant Conservative Whip 1986-87
Junior social security minister 1987-88
Minster for Transport 1988-90
Minister for local government 1990-92
Chief Secretary to the Treasury 1992-94
Employment secretary 1994-95
Defence secretary 1995-97
Lost his Enfield-Southgate seat in the 1997 general election
Elected MP for Kensington and Chelsea in 1999
Appointed shadow chancellor in 2000

The former defence secretary's eviction from the House of Commons by the voters of Enfield Southgate was one of the most memorable moments of that election.

It appears to have been a key moment in the political development of Mr Portillo, too.

He reacted to his public humiliation by taking a step away from politics and embarking on a prolonged period of self-analysis and reflection.

There were TV documentaries; one stressing his Spanish roots, another featuring an interview with William Hague on a windswept moor.

Then came a speech to a fringe meeting of the Conservative Party conference.

He appealed for a broader, softer Conservative Party, showing signs that he had decided to dispel his hard, Thatcherite image.

On the eve of standing in a by-election in Kensington and Chelsea he admitted to a gay experiences at university, to confirm and dispel the rumours that had hung around him for years.

Shocked the faithful

But by far the most shocking display - as far as the Tory right were concerned - was his speech to the party conference after his Commons return and appointment as shadow chancellor.

Mr Portillo did not focus soley on economic policy, but spoke in Spanish, talked of working as a hospital porter, and called for the party to welcome homosexuals and ethnic minorities.

Michael Portillo
Mr Portillo after winning the Kensington and Chelsea by-election
It was a speech that few in the party were expecting.

Most of the old Thatcherite right were horrified while One Nation Conservatives remained unconvinced.

The son of a Spanish refugee who fought Franco's Fascists, Portillo manages to pull off the often politically difficult stance of being tough on the euro, while being positive about Europe, itself.

During his time as shadow chancellor Mr Portillo has also displayed a pragmatic side to his character, ditching his party's opposition to the minimum wage, independence for the Bank of England and altering William Hague's plans for a guarantee that the Tories would reduce taxation in office.

Pledge of loyalty

In the run-up to the last general election, Mr Portillo has had to consistently deny that he had any plans to oust William Hague as party leader.

Portillo in Spain
Portillo: Pilgrimage to Spain
On one occasion, he came out publicly to say he had given up any ambitions of becoming leader.

That has now obviously changed. Mr Portillo moved quickly to announce his candidacy less than a week after William Hague's resignation.

That move was designed to stave off previous accusations from 1995 that he dithers when it comes to big decisions.

When the then prime minister John Major dramatically resigned to stage a "back me or sack me" challenge to the party's right, Mr Portillo allowed supporters to put telephone lines into a campaign headquarters but then failed to stand.

A 'softer' Tory Party?

But in 1997, Mr Portillo would have been seen as a saviour of the party.

In 2001, some are unsure.

Even before he entered the race Lord Tebbit has made an issue of Mr Portillo's gay experiences praising Iain Duncan Smith - a possible leadership contender - as being a "normal, family man with children".

While Mr Portillo's political heroine Baroness Thatcher - whom he begged to stay on as prime minister in 1990 - has described him as "confused" following his changes in political direction.

Mr Portillo has succeeded in portraying a softer and more tolerant side of himself.

The question is whether the Conservative Party, comprising its MPs and grassroots members, would like to do the same.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

04 Mar 01 | Parties
The Conservative Party
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more UK Politics stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK Politics stories