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Wednesday, September 8, 1999 Published at 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK

UK Politics

Portillo's crunch decision

Michael Portillo: Decided not to challenge John Major

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

For Michael Portillo, the decision whether or not to stand for the Kensington and Chelsea seat will be a turning point in his political career.

The BBC's Laura Trevelyan reports: "Mr Portillo would not be drawn on his intentions"
There is no doubt that the former defence secretary wants to return to the Commons but he has so far avoided all talk of doing so at a by-election.

Alan Clark's former constituency, with its near 10,000 majority at the last election, may prove too tempting.

It will undoubtedly be one of the biggest decisions Mr Portillo will have to take - ranking alongside his one not to stand against John Major in 1994.

Mr Portillo comes from the No Turning Back Group of the Tory right-wing - once famously dubbed the "Don't Turn Your Back Group" for their alleged plotting against previous leaders.

He was a leading light in the Adam Smith Institute where he was a fierce proponent of the privatisation of nationalised industries, before becoming then Trade Secretary Cecil Parkinson's special advisor in 1983.

Mark of skills

He had a swift rise to the top in politics after winning the Southgate by-election sparked by the death of Sir Anthony Berry in the Brighton bomb in 1984.

He was appointed assistant whip in 1985 and then progressed effortlessly through the ministerial ranks at the departments of social security, environment and transport before finally being made defence secretary.

It was a mark of his intelligence and political skills that the armed forces, who could easily have turned against him, took a shine to him.

His unswerving Thatcherism won him the support of the right-wing of Tory MPs and he was long spoken of in those circles as leader and prime minister in waiting.

He deeply disappointed his supporters in 1994 when he did not leave the Cabinet to challenge John Major for the party leadership. Instead the right-wing standard bearer became John Redwood.

Some accused him of being too calculating and cautious and hesitating at a crucial moment. What then offended others was the discovery that he had allowed his supporters to set up a leadership campaign office for him should the contest run into another round.

He then went on to become the most surprising victim of Labour's 1997 general election landslide, watching his 15,000 majority being swept away.

Solid support

Since then he has followed the campaigning path mapped out years before by Michael Heseltine when he stalked out of the Cabinet over the Westland affair.

[ image: Doing a Hezza]
Doing a Hezza
Mr Heseltine kept a relatively low profile while touring the country, building up a solid local Tory following while enhancing his reputation amongst supporters in the Commons.

In Mr Portillo's case "doing a Hezza" has the added aim of getting him back into Parliament. He has spent the past two years making carefully-worded speeches which many believe have amounted to a personal manifesto.

He has always remained loyal to Mr Hague, but there has been little doubt that - should he return to the Commons - he would become the focus of leadership plots.

While using TV appearances to cast himself in a more caring image, he has remained firm in his anti-single currency views which ensures him the support of the Tory Eurosceptics.

But he has not toed the line on every occasion and recently rocked the boat by suggesting controversial Tory treasurer Michael Ashcroft might not be the right man for the job.

His supporters will now be urging him not to hesitate and to throw his hat into the ring for Kensington and Chelsea.

Supporters plotting

He has always suggested he was leaving his return to a general election and it is uncertain how well he would perform under the full glare of a by-election where his more hardline views would be under the microscope.

And, as he discovered to his own cost, even the safest of Tory seats can fall to Labour in exceptional circumstances.

That is highly unlikely to happen now, however, so the smart money is on him being persuaded to stand - so long as the local party will have him.

If that happens and he wins, his supporters will rally round with many no doubt plotting for the moment they can spark a leadership contest and push him into the top job.

It will be difficult for him to be disloyal to Mr Hague and, in any case, he may not want the job this side of the next general election.

He may prefer to let Mr Hague lose it and then step in to pick up the pieces.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain, his single appearance at the Tory party conference next month is bound to be the most eagerly awaited event, pushing even Ann Widdecombe into the background.

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