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Tuesday, 1 February, 2000, 17:40 GMT
Michael Portillo: A political rebirth

Michael Portillo has travelled widely since his 1997 defeat

The new shadow chancellor has long been seen as a future Conservative leader who embodies a range of contradictions.

Compassion. It is an essential ingredient in Conservatism. We have never lost it, but the world does not believe that.
Michael Portillo
These have become more apparent since his famous failure in the 1997 general election when he lost his seat to Stephen Twigg, an openly gay Labour candidate who admitted he had never expected to win.

Before he had experienced defeat, Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo portrayed himself as staunch Europhobe, who took a reactionary line on social policy, appeared to blame poor single mothers for their circumstances and voted against lowering the gay age of consent.

A darling of the Tory right and a favourite on the conference podium, his opponents saw him as smug, arrogant and patronising.

But, after being swept away in the Labour landslide, everything appeared to change. His bouffant quiff hacked back, he embarked on a television career enabling himself to put across his more caring side.

His deep suspicion of the European Union and outright opposition to the euro remained. But Mr Portillo (Seņor Por-tee-yo to his rivals, who prefer the Spanish pronunciation) began to talk warmly about his father, Luis, a poet, academic and republican socialist, who fled Franco's dictatorship in the 1930s.

Michael Portillo's past conference speeches were noted for their passion
He then spent a week working on a hospital ward to understand the daily pressures for staff in the public sector.

And his disclosure of homosexual experiences as a young man provided the focus for great fascination and much speculation, coming the day after the announcement former Kensington and Chelsea MP Alan Clark had died and initially overshadowing Mr Portillo's entry into the by-election campaign.

He stood, somewhat shakily, by his views on the age of consent. "I took the view that gay sex could easily be more traumatic for a young man of 16 than heterosexual sex would generally be for a girl of 16," he told interviewer to whom he confessed his gay past. "By the way, do you think that's possibly true?"

Whatever transformation he may have gone through as he searched his soul in the months after May 1997, the former defence secretary's lust for power has clearly remained a constant.

In the same interview, he said: "The thing about Parliament and government which is very hard to replicate elsewhere is the breadth of the canvas. And that is what is so interesting. You are looking at important events and important developments."

Previously he had admitted that losing his constituency and seat in the House of Commons robbed him of his identity: "I have that normal male thing of valuing myself according to the job I do. When I can't tell someone in one word what I am, then something is missing. I don't represent anything any more."

Plotted against John Major but ducked leadership challenge
At public events during this period, Mr Portillo would play down elaborate introductions and insist he was "just a journalist". But the rapturous response he received each time proved that nobody, not even his biggest fans, believed him.

He has made the scale of his ambition clear in remarks about Prime Minister Tony Blair. "I certainly had a sense with Tony of seeing this chap in my wing mirror coming up on my inside lane, and then, all of a sudden, there's a great whoosh, he goes past and I am out of Parliament and he is the prime minister.

"I have, like a lot of people, been very impressed with how Tony has handled his first days in office. The one thing I can say to console myself, which not many people in politics can, is that I am younger than the prime minister."

In fact, he was born exactly 20 days after the prime minister - on 26 May 1953 - so even if he achieves his political ambition he can never be younger than Mr Blair was when he gets to 10 Downing Street. Eight years after his birth, he made his first appearance on the nation's television screen as the Ribena kid.

He attended Harrow Grammar School alongside Clive Anderson and was in the same drama club as Labour left-wing MP Diane Abbott, who attended a sister school. At the time, he espoused the left-wing, republican politics of his father.

He underwent his first political transformation at Peterhouse College, Cambridge University, where he developed the ideas leading him to be loved by the Tory right and reviled by many others.

While he is said to have enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle including champagne breakfasts at the college - and, it transpired, homosexual relationships - he emerged with a first in history and his mind set on a career in politics.

Champion of Thatcherism

After a spell as a political staffer at the Conservative research department, he entered Westminster as the successor to MP Sir Anthony Berry, who was killed in the IRA Brighton bomb blast.

Mr Portillo wasted no time in establishing himself as a champion of Thatcherite causes, such as the privatisation of transport links. He horrified some by his bombastic conference speeches, but among the party faithful he quickly became spoken about as a young man who might one day become leader. Along the way, he married City headhunter Carolyn Eadie. The couple have no children.

Under Margaret Thatcher, he entered the cabinet after a series of junior ministerial posts. But when his first chance at the leadership came, after John Major had taken over from the Iron Lady, he ducked it. John Redwood was left to take up the right-wing mantle and he was embarrassed when it later emerged he had set up a campaign centre in case the contest opened up.

Then came his nadir: the 1997 election. The result captured something of the mood of the British people in 1997 and there is an instant history book about the election titled Were You Still Up for Portillo?

Now he is back. Tories will hope that means the country is ready to put its trust in a Conservative government again. But the media is certain to focus on the threat Mr Portillo's ambition and fan-base represent to William Hague.

Unquestionably, his return to the frontbenches makes UK politics more interesting.

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See also:
09 Sep 99 |  UK Politics
Portillo: In his own words

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