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Monday, 16 July, 2001, 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK
Portillo's dark days
Tory leader William Hague and leadership contender Michael Portillo
Hague was allegedly betrayed by Portillo
Nick Assinder

It was the two days that shook Michael Portillo's Tory leadership campaign and left him staring defeat in the face.

First William Hague's spin doctor Amanda Platell accused him of betraying her man during the election campaign.

Then former leader Margaret Thatcher angrily slapped him down for allegedly, and spuriously, claiming she was backing him.

Former Tory leader Baroness Thatcher
Thatcher rejected support claims
Next, he learned that Kenneth Clarke was picking up Eurosceptic votes from David Davis, who had pulled out of the race.

And finally the bookies were claiming Iain Duncan Smith was now the clear leader and that Mr Portillo was struggling to make it through to the final round.

Sense of fear

Much of this will not have come as a huge surprise to Mr Portillo, and his supporters insist it will not hugely affect the outcome of the contest.

But it was clear after the two black days that there was a real sense of fear in the Portillo camp.

Ever since he was re-elected to parliament in the Kensington and Chelsea by-election, Mr Portillo has been viewed by many as the natural next Tory leader.

And, right up until the end of last week he was still reckoned to be running ahead of his contenders. But that has now all changed.

And many in Westminster are blaming it on his alleged behind-the-scenes activities.

William Hague's spin doctor Amanda Platell
Platell pointed finger at Portillo
He has a reputation, deserved or otherwise, of regularly briefing against his leader and even of forcing him to abandon key policies such as the tax guarantee.

And during the election campaign it is widely claimed that he - or his supporters - were telling journalists that Mr Hague was taking the wrong line and concentrating too much on Europe and not enough on public services.

Duck responsibility

As Ms Platell claimed in her video diary, it appeared they had already written off the election result and were only thinking about the post-election leadership campaign.

While Mr Portillo was offering a hugely loyal public face - and he was given plenty of opportunity to duck responsibility for the campaign - he was privately distancing himself from it as often as possible.

These claims have been fiercely denied and even Mr Hague has said he believed he was offered loyalty by Mr Portillo.

But he is not about to throw a grenade into the leadership election by slagging off any candidate.

The first public claims of Mr Portillo's claimed activities came from Ann Widdecombe who spoke of "back biting."

Sophisticated bunch

Some believe much of this - most recently the claims of Lady Thatcher's backing - has not been inspired by Mr Portillo but has been instigated "freelance" by some of his aides.

Tory leadership contender Iain Duncan Smith
Duncan Smith the front runner
In any case, it was always likely that the campaign would turn nasty at some point and, as the result has become tighter - with Mr Portillo, Mr Clarke and Mr Duncan Smith virtually neck and neck - it is no surprise it has happened now.

But the Tory MPs are a sophisticated bunch and little of the two days' events will have surprised them.

The overwhelming majority have already made up their minds how to vote and Mr Portillo's supporters are now desperately hoping that will still push him through to the final round where ordinary party members vote.

What they will have made of the last two days may, however, be hugely different.

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