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 beby Bruce Anderson / January 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
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…