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Tuesday, 23 November, 1999, 18:18 GMT
Portillo win will boost Tories
Michael Portillo will add some weight to the Tory benches

By political correspondent Nick Assinder

Michael Portillo's expected victory in the Kensington and Chelsea by-election will give the Tories a much-needed boost in the wake of the Archer scandal.

The seat is rock-solid Conservative and it would take a political tidal wave bigger than the one which ousted him from the Commons in 1997 to deny him his new seat.

Most party members will rejoice that they finally have someone in their ranks who can take on the government.

And William Hague will lose no time in welcoming him back into parliament and promising him swift promotion.

But Mr Hague's delight at a by-election victory will be overshadowed by fears that, for the first time, he will have in his ranks a serious contender for his job.

Mr Portillo has long been seen as a leader-in-waiting and, whether he likes it or not, will be the focus point of dissent.

Leadership challenge

His supporters will look to him to stiffen further Mr Hague's Eurosceptic stance.

And his very existence on the backbenches will add to any future speculation about leadership challenges.

Every time Mr Hague is seen to make a mistake, his critics will start whispering about Mr Portillo's qualities.

The Archer scandal has already re-ignited whispers about Mr Hague's strategic judgement but, while there is no obvious contender for his job, he remains safe.

And there is no doubt that government ministers will not relish facing Mr Portillo over the despatch box or on the election hustings.

The ex-minister is, of course, too canny a politician to do anything but offer his leader staunch support.

He will do nothing to undermine him in the run up to the next general election and is expected to work closely with him.

Mr Hague will want to promote him to a senior job as soon as is reasonable on the grounds that it is better having him inside the tent spitting out than the alternative.

Natural choice

There can be little doubt that Mr Portillo would like to lead the Tories. But, more importantly, he would like to be prime minister.

And his best chance of doing that is to wait until Mr Hague has lost the next election and then stands down, sparking an official leadership race.

Mr Portillo would be the natural choice of most on the right of the party and, thanks to recent speeches attempting to give him a "caring" gloss, may even win over some on the left.

And it is difficult to predict who could be the left-wing, Europhile contender. Former ministers Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke are the obvious contenders but many in the party are already talking of them as yesterday's men.

Mr Portillo's admission to a past gay relationship appears to have done him little harm in the by-election campaign or amongst party members, despite the best attempts of Outrage! to dog his every step.

As long as there are no fresh revelations about his private life, the issue appears to have receded although it would remain to be seen whether it would become an issue in a leadership contest.

What is certain is that his return to Parliament will inject some new life into the Tories and give Labour something to worry about.

The full list of candidates:

  • Labour: Robert Atkinson
  • Liberal Democrats: Robert Woodthorpe Browne
  • Green Party: Hugo Charlton
  • Independent Environmentalist Stop Climate Change: John Davies
  • Democratic Party: Charles, Earl of Burford
  • UK Independence Party: Damian Hockney
  • Daily and Sunday Sport Party: Louise Hodges
  • Official Monster Raving Loony Party: Alan "Howling Laud" Hope
  • Campaign for Living Will Legislation: Michael Irwin
  • People's net dream ticket Party: Lisa Lovebucket
  • Equal Parenting Party: Peter May
  • UK Pensioners Party: George Oliver
  • Legalise Cannabis Alliance: Colin Paisley
  • Conservative: Michael Portillo
  • Referendum Party: Stephen Scott-Fawcett
  • Pro Euro Conservative Party: John Stevens
  • Stop Tobacco Companies Farming Our Children: Tonysamuelsondotcom
  • Natural Law: Gerard Valente.

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See also:
23 Nov 99 |  UK Politics
Portillo tipped for return to Westminster
08 Nov 99 |  UK Politics
Tatchell changes tactics against Portillo

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