As Michael Portillo approaches his 60th birthday this weekend, it’s easy to forget that this gentle, amiable TV presenter was not only the fierce young embodiment of a resurgent Thatcherite Right but also a prospective Prime Minister. But flashback twenty years and it was a different story…
With the possible exceptions of Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine, Portillo excited Tories more than any other post-Thatcher politician. The son of a left wing refugee from the Spanish Civil War, Portillo was an unlikely Tory hero. Like William Hague, he was vulnerable to charges of teenaged political geekery. But it was Labour’s Harold Wilson, Portillo idolised, not Thatcher. He even had a picture of him in his school locker. This only changed when hr began experimenting with conservatism at university.
By the time of John Major’s surprise victory in 1992, Portillo’s Thatcherite credentials were impeccable. He had been close to the lady herself since the Seventies. Although not yet forty and as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, the most junior cabinet minister, Portillo began being touted as a possible successor to the already troubled Major. He was younger and healthier than Heseltine and moiré agreeably Eurosceptic than the other most mooted successor Ken Clarke.
He was certainly a mischief maker and a party conference rabble rouser even if his absurd “Who dares wins” speech was poorly received. A panel of disillusioned Tory voters on Newsnight who had never seen him before, universally backed him as exactly the sort of leader they would like to see. On Spitting Image, Jeremy Paxman was endlessly distracted by Portillo’s “nice hair”. Malicious rumours flew elsewhere that he was having a gay affair with colleague Peter Lilley (untrue). Portillo was appointed Employment Secretary, a decision likened to “putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank”. Portillo was undoubtedly one of the Eurosceptic “bastards”, John Major in an off the record moment complained he could not sack. There seemed no stopping him.
That said, in 1995, when Major resigned, inviting opponents to “put up or shut up” and stand against him, Portillo dithered like David Miliband did over Gordon Brown a decade later. Portillo came off badly – telephone wires were seen being installed at his potential campaign HQ, presumably as a precaution if Major fell. John Redwood, another Rightist, boosted his profile by standing against Major and losing. But Redwood, unlike Portillo, had never stood a chance. Portillo was given the post of Defence Secretary, a tricky one to cause mischief with (Thatcher gave Heseltine the same position in 1983). Portillo was surely sensible to wait until the Tories lost in 1996 or 1997 and then stand then?
Few expected the Tories to lose as heavily as they did, however. The opinion polls were actually quite accurate but even Labour’s leaders, cautious after the 1992 shock, only expected a majority of about 40 not 179, the largest achieved by any party since the war.
Portillo certainly wasn’t expecting to lose his Enfield seat although had steeled himself by the time the result was aired on TV, a clip later voted one of the “best TV moments ever”. Unlike David Mellor who had a public row with Referendum Party leader Sir James Goldsmith when he lost his seat in Putney, Portillo maintained an air of dignity. But Portillo’s defeat was a total surprise. He had been assumed to be the next Tory leader. In a night of big Tory scalps (Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont) Portillo’s was the biggest. “Were you up for Portillo?” became the big question of the next day. Subsequent elections threatened to have “Portillo moments” – Peter Mandelson almost fell in 2005, Ed Balls came close in 2010. But none delivered. Blair, born in the same month as Portillo had proven his political nemesis.
The subsequent 1997 Tory leadership contest must have been especially galling as had he been an MP, Portillo would have surely won the leadership. Heseltine, Portillo’s main prospective rival, did not stand due to health concerns. Clarke, the most popular and well known candidate was rejected by Tories as too pro-Europe. Lady Thatcher’s endorsement and the support of Tories went to a young right winger, William Hague. At thirty six, Hague was eight years younger than Portillo, little known, inexperienced and unpopular. On the other hand, with such a huge Labour majority to overturn, the likelihood of anyone even Portillo leading the Tories to victory within a decade looked slim. The job was a poisoned chalice.
Had Portillo stayed where he was ideologically, he would probably have succeeded Hague as leader. He won a by-election in Alan Clark’s Kensington and Chelsea seat in 1999 and quickly moved to Hague’s front bench. The Tories barely gained any ground in the 2001 election and Hague quit. Surely now was Portillo’s time?
But Portillo was no longer the right winger he had been. He had genuinely had a rethink during his time out of parliament and had repositioned himself basically as a “compassionate conservative” similar to David Cameron today. This and revelations about homosexuality in his student days, harmed his standing with the notoriously homophobic Tory Party. In a bonkers decision, Tories plucked for Iain Duncan Smith over the more popular, experienced and well known Portillo and Ken Clarke. Smith turned out to be the worst Opposition leader in living memory and was ditched in 2003. Not yet fifty, Portillo grew disillusioned, concentrating instead on a career in the media. He stood down in 2005 and is no longer a Tory Party member today.
Perhaps Portillo’s misfortune was simply timing. Tony Blair was born in the same month as Portillo and ultimately proved his nemesis. Portillo would probably never have overthrown Major in 1995 but had more Tories voted for Redwood, Major might have fallen and Portillo, hampered by his youth (he was then only forty two) might have succeeded him. But would he have wanted to be PM for just two years with New Labour’s ascent in 1997 so inevitable by that point anyway?
Alternatively, had Labour won by less in 1997, Portillo would have maintained his seat and probably won the leadership. But the “what if” scenario does not help. The scale of the defeat was beyond Portillo’s control.
Portillo’s third chance in 2001 was effectively wrecked by his new moderate position. This was sincere and not a tactic. Besides Portillo was not to know just how bonkers the Tories would be by 2001. A shallower politician would have become leader. It seems unlikely but not impossible he could have beaten Blair in 2005 anyway.
Perhaps he could have stayed on and won the leadership in 2005 instead of Cameron. Or maybe, had he become leader in 2001, he would have done well enough in 2005 to stay on as leader and then won in 2010? He would still have been a year younger than PM Gordon Brown.
But one senses his heart was no longer in it. Ultimately, Portillo’s failure to become Prime Minister was not down to ill judgement. He was just unlucky.