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Tuesday, September 7, 1999 Published at 17:49 GMT 18:49 UK

UK Politics

By-election chance for Portillo

Portillo: Must ponder by-election

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

The death of Tory maverick Alan Clark leaves William Hague facing a by-election which could see the return of former Defence Secretary Michael Portillo.

Mr Portillo was sensationally dumped from his Enfield Southgate seat in the 1997 election and many Tory rebels desperately want him to come back into the House to champion their cause.

If he does, that could cause real trouble for Mr Hague who - despite some morale-boosting election successes for the Tories recently - is still facing snipers from his own side.

He remains low in the opinion polls and many believe if Mr Portillo was back in the front line, talk of a real challenge to Mr Hague's leadership could be translated into action.

At the moment there is no obvious right-wing candidate to mount a serious challenge to Mr Hague while former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke is seen as the left's most likely candidate.

The other widely-tipped candidate, former Tory Chairman and Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, is out of the frame since becoming a European Commissioner.

Even if there were no leadership challenge before the next election, Mr Portillo would immediately go to the top of the stakes to take over from Mr Hague before the following poll.

Rock solid

Kensington and Chelsea is a rock solid Conservative seat and, whoever is selected to fight it, will almost certainly walk into Westminster.

Since his defeat, Mr Portillo has regularly been touted as the next Tory leader and Prime Minister.

He is seen as a champion of the Eurosceptic right wing, although he has recently adopted a less hard-line stand on social policies.

He has been hugely loyal to Mr Hague but has left little doubt that he relishes a return to the Commons.

He has made a series of carefully-worded speeches over the past two years which many have interpreted as his personal manifesto.

Too tempting

So far he has avoided putting his name forward for by-elections, but the new rock solid vacancy could prove too tempting.

And party workers in Kensington and Chelsea have shown they are ready to chose candidates who may not always follow the party line.

However, Mr Portillo will want to avoid looking like a carpetbagger and now faces a hugely difficult decision.

This is almost certainly going to be his best chance of a Commons return before the next election.

1997 General Election result

Alan Clark (C) 19,887 (53.62%); Robert Atkinson (Lab) 10,368 (27.96%); Robert Woodthorpe Browne (LD) 5,668 (15.28%); Ms Angela Ellis-Jones (UK Ind) 540 (1.46%); Edward Bear (Teddy) 218 (0.59%); George Oliver (UKPP) 176 (0.47%); Ms Susan Hamza (NLP) 122 (0.33%); Paul Sullivan (Dream) 65 (0.18%); Pete Parliament (Heart) 44 (0.12%). C maj 9,519 (25.67%). Turnout 54.71%.

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