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EDITIONS
Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 11:18 GMT
All eyes on Portillo
Will Michael Portillo become king of the castle?

What is he up to? This is the question Conservative MPs, nerves heightened by the long-running "mutterings" as to their leader's performance, ask of Michael Portillo's every deed.

Amid the leadership fever that swept his party this week, the one-time heir apparent to the Tory top job appeared on national television insisting: "I don't want the job."

But the reaction in Westminster to what in a less conspiratorial environs would be taken as a straightforward statement was: "What did he really mean by that?"

It is a safe general rule of politics that when it comes to jockeying for position, nothing anyone says or does should be taken at face value.

Sudden reappearance

With Mr Portillo, whatever his real intentions, people apply the rule in the extreme - the more so since he suddenly emerged from his self-imposed spell in the wilderness.

Following his spectacular ejection from last year's leadership race, he virtually vanished from politics and Westminster, appearing at the Commons rarely and spending more time on his burgeoning media career.

But in October alone he has spoken five times and been seen often on the backbenches - even during sparsely attended debates whose sole interesting fact is that Michael Portillo listened to them.

His reappearance has sparked off a tide of speculation - and a return to business as usual.

Even before his return to the Commons as the MP for Kensington & Chelsea in 1999, he suffered from the burden of expectations on him as the incumbent leader-in-waiting while William Hague battled on in the post.

Mr Portillo's every single act and statement, no matter how banal, was scrutinised for coded meaning and hidden intent - especially by those fearful that his greater experience and glamour could overshadow their own preferred leader.

Destabilising presence

What this all adds up to is that with the best will in the world, he is a destabilising presence on the Tory benches by simply virtue of the fact that so much speculation surrounds him.

Though he has declared he doesn't want the job of Tory leader and had no intention of challenging Mr Duncan Smith, the memory of Michael Heseltine stalking Margaret Thatcher after quitting her cabinet lingers in many MPs' minds.

He, too, spent years on the fringes of the party insisting he could not foresee the circumstances in which he would run against her.

Few believed him - and sure enough, the circumstances eventually presented themselves, just as everyone had expected.

Despite Mr Portillo's fresh renunciations of leadership "ambition" this week, and whatever he really means by them, his fellow Conservatives will never quite believe it.

See also:

31 Oct 02 | Politics
11 Oct 02 | Politics
21 Oct 02 | England
11 Sep 02 | Politics
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