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Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 12:32 GMT
Michael Portillo: Shadow Chancellor

Mark Mardell

Michael Portillo is a puzzle, an enigma yet to be fully unwrapped.

He is the second most important power in the shadow cabinet, crucial to the Tories' chances in this general election.

But that is not what fascinates.

He is one of the lost leaders who litter history, for had he hung on to his seat in 1997 it is almost certain that he and not Mr Hague would be the leading the Conservative Party to the polls.


A man who had come to symbolise the sneering, arrogant right had been undone

And boy did he feel it


Yet it is not just that which intrigues. He gives every impression of a man on a journey which is not yet over.

The path he has taken has already bewildered and disgusted some of his strongest supporters.

Like underlings of a gangland tough, they are startled when their hero wakes from a long sleep to discover his inner child and extols the joys of flower arranging.

Election defeat

Labour MP Stephen Twigg
Labour MP Stephen Twigg ousted Michael Portillo

The fulcrum of Mr Portillo's life was the last general election.

His unexpected and crushing defeat at the hands of Stephen Twigg in Enfield Southgate sent a surge of joy through Labour supporters.

A man who had come to symbolise the sneering, arrogant right had been undone. And boy did he feel it.


He would probably have been the Conservatives' choice as leader if he had stayed an MP

In John Major's government he was the bearer of the true flame of Thatcherism, one of the few who begged the lady to stay.

He continued to advocate a tougher line towards the single currency abroad, and bolder free market policies at home.

But it was not only his political enemies who saw signs of a lack of political maturity and flaky judgement.

From Spain to Southgate

The son of a Spanish refugee who fought Franco's Fascists he seemed to go out of his way to prove he disdained foreigners.

He declared that unlike the British they could buy their degrees, and had to apologise.

His speech as defence secretary urging Conservatives to emulate the SAS, ending with their motto "Who dares wins", annoyed the military and the Tory left in equal measure.


He had always been an economic liberal, and had just decided to come out as a social liberal as well

Probably his worst misjudgement was during the fracas over the Conservative leadership.

When John Major dramatically resigned to stage a "back me or sack me" challenge to the party's right, Mr Portillo allowed supporters to put telephone lines into a campaign headquarters but then failed to stand.

On that occasion he who did not dare lost and ended up appearing both disloyal and gutless.

Policy rethink

Despite all this he would probably have been the Conservatives' choice as leader if he had stayed an MP.


Most extraordinary of all was his speech to the most recent party conference

It was not what they were used to and was probably the moment he strangled his hopes of becoming Tory leader


Instead, the trauma of losing and the certain knowledge of the electorate's unalloyed joy at his humiliation forced a serious self-examination.

There was his first speech to the party conference fringe, a plea for a broader, softer Conservative Party.

There were the TV documentaries, one stressing his Spanish roots, another featuring an interview with William Hague on a windswept moor; Mr Portillo coming on like Heathcliff in a Barbour, a cold looking Mr Hague like a startled hill walker in an anorak.

Rumours dispelled

One the eve of standing for a by-election in Kensington and Chelsea he admitted to a gay fling at university, to confirm and dispel the rumours that had hung around him for years.

Michael Portillo after his Kensington and Chelsea by-election victory
Michael Portillo after his by-election victory
Most extraordinary of all was his speech to the most recent party conference.

The shadow chancellor made barely a mention of economic policy, but spoke in Spanish, talked of working as a hospital porter, and called for the party to welcome homosexuals and ethnic minorities.

It was not what they were used to and was probably the moment he strangled his hopes of becoming Tory leader.

Most of the old Thatcherite right were horrified while One Nation Conservatives remained unconvinced.

As shadow chancellor he has scarcely got the better of Gordon Brown, but has guided his own party away from the sort of policies at which economists scoffed.

With Conservative Party leader, William Hague
With Conservative Party leader, William Hague
This has not improved a difficult relationship with William Hague and their camps are constantly over-interpreting each other's moves as hostile.

The impression of Mr Portillo as someone who puts the examination of his tortured soul above his politics was reinforced at the end of last year when newspapers carried stories that he was fed up with Westminster and thinking of giving it all up.

He dilly-dallied before denying. Since then he has been a lot more focused.

Government or opposition

There may be some low strategy in all of this.

It often seems that Mr Hague is pursuing policies that will excite convinced Conservatives to vote, minimise the scale of defeat and persuade the party that he is the right leader.

Some of the ideas and tone coming from Mr Portillo are more likely to build a broad coalition that could win power.

But it is probably true, as Mr Portillo told Jeremy Paxman, that he had always been an economic liberal, and had just decided to come out as a social liberal as well.

But there is more to it than that. It is easy to believe that the shadow chancellor has persuaded himself the party will not have him as leader and is pondering whether he wants to spend his early middle age in the thankless task of opposition.

If the Conservatives win he will be a power in the land, whose relationship with the leader will be a source of fascination for us all.

But if they lose he will face a fork in the road: continue the grind or get out of an unforgiving game where he's unlikely to win the highest prize.

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