The beast in John Bull's jungle

Michael Portillo alienated all sides in the Tory leadership contest and then made a crass conference speech. Yet he remains a crown prince of the new Tory party. Bruce Anderson wonders whether he ought to be
January 20, 1996

Michael Gove has written an intriguing book (Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right, Fourth Estate, 1995), though its main proposition is latent rather than explicit: asserted in chapter headings, rather than argued in the text. Michael Portillo enjoys flattery, but even so he ought to be gratified by the appearance of this volume; has any British politician other than a party leader ever been the subject of a biography at such an early age? In this case it is justified.

There is always a problem in writing a book about active politicians: "Events, my dear, events," in Harold Macmillan's phrase. It did not help the clarity of Gove's thesis that he felt obliged to begin his narrative with John Redwood's campaign for the Tory leadership. Not unreasonably, Gove had assumed that Portillo was the crown prince of the Tory party right: Thatcher's heir, awaiting his moment. This assessment was widespread, but two men found it galling. One of them, John Major, could do little to relieve his irritation: another John could.

In the immediate aftermath of Redwood's challenge, Portillo was destabilised: his political navigation gear packed up and he came close to panic. Suddenly, the crown princeship was in dispute. It is hard to believe that this was not John Redwood's goal. Gove is a scrupulous author; he weighs his evidence. But there is one exception: the quote with which he rounds off the Redwood passage. "Michael Portillo was last night appointed the Tory heir apparent, the leader-in-waiting... John Redwood has failed in his bid for the leadership of the Tory right." The author of this assessment is that expert on the Conservative party, the political editor of the Daily Mirror.

In the course of his career Michael Portillo has made errors of judgement-two large ones this year. He has had bad luck, but he has also been eccentric in his choice of associates-which has done nothing to assuage anxieties about his judgement. He has often caused resentments. Yet for all this, and whatever the impact on his immediate standing, his status as a big beast of the jungle is undiminished.

John Redwood is able, and the 89 votes he won at the end of his campaign more than made up for his weaknesses. Last July, big beasthood was within his reach-but it has exceeded his grasp. John Redwood's main problem is John Redwood. He lacks resonance. Give him a big issue with historical and philosophical dimensions and he promptly sets about disaggregating it into ?100m of savings here and fractions of percentages there, which is exactly how he conducted his press conferences during the leadership campaign. His speeches sound like dead leaves being rustled by a sweeping brush. At a recent meeting, when Redwood was once again turning a sizeable question into small print, a Tory MP hissed at me: "He is just a desiccated calculating machine." Redwood has a genuine interest in cricket, in politics he makes his runs in pushes and nudges: there is no stroke-play. The Redwood mappa mundi is all marginal adjustments.

that is not an accusation which could be levelled at Portillo, although his opportunities for expounding his Weltanschauung have been limited. He has spent a significant proportion of his adult life as an apparatchik or a minister; neither is an ideal platform for general political speculation which, if it is to be interesting, must transcend the party line. It is easier to intuit Portilloism than to document it.

Most politician's views are bound up with their personality: he is no exception. Portillo is a man of strong but private passions, which infuse his nationalism. In common with a surprising number of devout nationalists, his own origins are ambivalent: perhaps it is easier to value that which is wrested from uncertainty. By origin a Scottish Castilian-Spaniard, he is at the junction of a number of proud lineages, even if he was born in the home counties. The fact that he is only a first generation Englishman may add to rather than weaken his force as a spokesman for English nationalism.

But doubts remain. Nationalism at its finest-Churchill, de Gaulle, Powell-is an austere, knightly vocation, untinged by the bellicosities of corner boy chauvinism. Portillo's own attempts to express a nationalist credo have not always been happy. There is nothing wrong with linking your own sense of high destiny to that of the nation from which you spring: for example, de Gaulle's "certain idea of France." But nationalism as an outlet for unsublimated aggression or the jagged edges of personality is at best contemptible (football hooligans), at worst calamitous (most of the psychopathic political movements in Europe this century).

Portillo ought to keep his rhetoric upmarket. Michael Heseltine's conference speeches are a coalition between shamelessness and substance, and not too much of the former. They are an example Portillo should copy. He now regrets his snarling references to the SAS-"Don't mess with Britain"-in this year's speech, and almost as soon as he had said it, he started apologising to every soldier he met- which is just as well: the secretary of state for defence has no business sullying the profession of arms.

But why did he say it in the first place? For a man who especially appreciates the aesthetic refinements of life, it was a ghastly, vulgar, almost inexcusable breach of taste, and it may point to a more general moral failing. Gove's account hints at a certain insecurity. "One contemporary does remember that Portillo's rare moments of loss of composure were due to a feeling that he might be excluded. He had to be on the inside-preferably at the heart of things. The need to be on the inside track was one of the factors fuelling Portillo's early interest in politics." Gove goes on to pay tribute to Portillo's attachment to loyalty. But there is much to suggest that for Portillo, loyalty equals sycophancy towards himself: the loyalty of satellites towards the sun. Gove writes admiringly of the squads of young Portillistas fanning out at the beginning of the conference session, to be strategically placed to cheer their leader from all corners of the hall. Sometimes Michael Portillo can seem as haughty and disdainful as Coriolanus.

At least one of Portillo's acolytes would be deeply insulted to be so described. David Hart is an egregious figure. He would see himself as Sidonia; his detractors would say: Melmotte. They can agree that only a master novelist could give verisimilitude to such an extraordinary figure: a blend of Machiavelli and Mr Toad.

Hart has never believed in starting at the bottom. Within a couple of years of taking an interest in politics he had made contact with Margaret Thatcher-and she continued to listen to him, against the advice of her more cautious counsellors. While there is no evidence that he ever influenced policy, he appealed to an aspect of Thatcher's schizoid political personality. She was always ready to give credence to ju-ju men: she always hoped to find the guru who would tell her that her troubles with public spending could be solved at a stroke. The Circumlocution Office really did exist-indeed, it now employed 400,000 civil servants. Close it down at once, and hey presto! These qualities made her a nigh-impossible colleague, but they were indispensable to her success. By treating her own government with a scorn that would have been more appropriate from the leader of the opposition, she helped to sustain its vitality. No other prime minister would have had Hart as an advisor, however unofficial: he should be given a chapter in the history of the psychodrama of Thatcherism.

After her fall, Hart moved on-to Norman Lamont, Malcolm Rifkind, and to Michael Portillo; he is closest to Portillo. According to Gove, he had for some time been advising Portillo to resign from the cabinet and challenge for the leadership. He went further; almost as soon as the leadership campaign started, workmen appeared outside a house in Lord North Street. They were installing telephone lines: 40 of them, to equip a Portillo campaign headquarters. It all happened without Portillo's knowledge.

it was not only the Portillo groupies who behaved embarrassingly. The problem began with the man himself : he could not decide what to do. There was a clear choice: to support John Major or to run himself -and he had about ten minutes to choose. Instead he agonised, audibly. Rumour has it that there was wild talk at a lunch with journalists. This had predictable consequences. Major's supporters were angered by his disloyalty, while the right was disappointed by his lack of courage.

At the end of the Redwood campaign there were those who thought that the prime minister should surprise everyone by recalling Redwood to the team, but sacking Portillo, on the grounds that stabs in the front were just about forgivable-whereas stabs in the back, however half-hearted, were not. Had John Major acted in that way there would have been no revolt. At that moment Portillo was weakened-and it was his own fault. But instead of cutting his throat, the prime minister promoted him to defence. Major is also a complex creature. We could speculate endlessly as to whether he had forgiven Portillo, or whether he merely regarded a damaged Portillo as less dangerous. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

Gove would see nothing to forgive. Himself a member of the small, grown-up wing of the Portillista party, his tone towards his subject is rarely less than reverential. He quotes Lady Thatcher's coronation address at Portillo's 40th birthday party: "We brought you up, we expect great things of you, you will not disappoint us." This may turn out to be true. Certainly the future of the Conservative party lies with the right. It is inconceivable that the Europhiles could ever stage a counter-revolution, let alone the Keynesians. For the foreseeable future (as Marxism Today would have put it) the Thatcherite paradigm will be hegemonic: John Bull nationalism plus free market economics.

There are two caveats. First, that the party must not lose its Peelites. Second, that it must regularly disappoint its own natural supporters. The modern Peelites are the party's establishment-minded, City-orientated, slightly left-leaning supporters: small in numbers, crucial in influence. They will put up with a great deal of Euroscepticism. Although most of them want a single currency, they will defer to political reality-though we cannot be sure about Ken Clarke. But they would not tolerate a prolonged breakdown in relations with the European Union. They need to be reassured at frequent intervals that the UK will stay at the heart of Europe. If the Tory party ever seemed to be heading for withdrawal, the Peelites would withdraw from the party.

On economic policy, the Peelites have moved further to the right than seemed possible 15 years ago, when most of them believed in the inevitability of incomes policy while dismissing monetarism as voodoo economics: in those days they would gladly have settled for 5 per cent inflation. Chris Patten, an archetypal Peelite, has discovered that the Hong Kong government spends only 16 per cent of the colony's GDP: less than two fifths of the UK proportion. He is not convinced that the other three-fifths bring value for money. All the Peelites would agree that taxes should be further reduced, that state spending should continue to fall as a proportion of GDP, that counter inflation is sacrosanct and that privatisation should continue.

But they do have a social conscience. Some of the Portillistas view the welfare state merely as the unprivatised residuum of previous Tory governments' wetness. That view would be unacceptable to the Peelites: if it were pressed to extremes, they might walk. When the original Peelites walked, they condemned their party to a generation in opposition. The latter-day Peelites are no less potent, and they place limits on any Tory government's freedom of action. If they are to be kept in the team, even the most viscerally anti-European Tory leader will have to put up with a degree of dictation from Brussels. He will also have to accept that on public expenditure, the most that can be achieved is Fabian-style Thatcherism: gradual reductions in spending as a percentage of GDP.

I doubt if Gove is aware of this. He would like the party to sail off blithely into clear blue water; he does not realise that most blue water lies in deep and dangerous oceans. Like many, he is so dazzled by Thatcherite rhetoric as to be blind to the record. But on Europe, and on public spending, she was if anything excessively appeasing towards her Peelites. The same applies to the Anglo-Irish agreement, although in that case it was less a case of appeasement and more a matter of the Peelites using their wiles to exploit her hubris.

Where does Portillo stand on all this? Does he understand that from time to time any Tory leader who wishes to remain electable would have to treat his most fervent supporters as General de Gaulle treated his pieds-noirs followers: "Je vous ai compris," and then a shafting? Portillo's intellectual ability is as indubitable as his desire to lead the Tory party. But unless the ambition is to turn vaulting and o'erleap itself, two other qualities will be required: a mature self-command and a mature grasp of politics. He will not acquire either by believing what he reads in this book.
Michael Portillo: the future of the right

Michael Gove