Hague gives Labour a perfect target

Michael Portillo, symbol of all that the voters hate about the Tories, now has to shadow Gordon Brow

John Redwood has more of a sense of humour than he is credited with, as should have been obvious from his decision to serve in the Hague shadow cabinet in the first place. He will have needed it in full on 1 February, when his reward for being one of the few shadow cabinet ministers of whom anyone had heard, and who had made any impact on the Labour government, was to be sacked to make way for the inspiring figure of Archie Norman.

Just when you feel that the Conservative Party might be turning a corner, or at least that it cannot become any more absurd, it proves you monumentally wrong. Conscious that Redwood's sacking was, to say the least, unfair even by the standards of modern politics, the party immediately briefed that it was a move to cleanse the top table further of anyone associated with the Major government. Yet Redwood resigned in disgust from that government two years before its end; and half the people brought into the shadow cabinet were called Michael Portillo. Perhaps William Hague was so busy serving in the Major government himself that he failed to notice that Portillo was one of his senior colleagues, or that Redwood wasn't. It suggests both that the excuse given for Redwood's removal was thin, and that the party's selective memory and talent for rewriting history continue to blossom and flourish.

When Portillo returned to the Commons, it was put about by some of his colleagues that he would have to work his passage back. Nobody else thought this for a moment. Despite his having become the incarnation of what people loathed about the Major government, he had stature and talent that far exceeded that of anyone else in the upper reaches of his party. It was clear that even his party was not so stupid that it would happily sit and watch him fester on the back benches, while towering geo-political giants like John Maples held down important briefs.

What was a source of contention, however, was the post that Portillo would get. Some of his once and future colleagues observed, in the words of one of them, that "I have not put in two and a half years at the coalface of opposition only to see Portillo vault straight into a senior post". But that is exactly what has happened.

Hague may have done the most brilliant thing in making Portillo shadow chancellor. Partly because of the lacklustre performance of Francis Maude in the job, and partly because of the ultra- Conservative economic policies of the Labour Party that made Maude look so inadequate, many Tories have given up hope of landing blows on Labour on that front before the election. Gordon Brown has, by any objective standards, run the economy better - with the help of Eddie George - than his Tory predecessors. While other European economies are basket-cases, Britain's has sustainable growth, ferociously tight monetary control, historically low corporation taxes and a public that feels generally prosperous. There is not a lot for a Tory shadow chancellor to get his teeth into: indeed, it is hard to believe that one so smart as Portillo imagines there is much to be gained by hammering away at the economy between now and the election.

Labour can have the most enormous fun with Portillo. As a backbencher he was a nonentity, albeit a renowned one. Now that he is back in one of the most senior shadow posts, he is a legitimate target for the government's venom, and not just on economic matters.

However, let us start with those. Brown can look back with unrestrained satisfaction on the period that Portillo spent in the Treasury as chief secretary between 1992 and 1995. The supposedly ultra-Thatcherite minister presided over a great splurge of public spending, designed not least to repair the social damage done by Britain's membership of the exchange rate mechanism. Such profligacy would never be allowed by this government, nor such an expansion of the money supply. Brown might also like to recall that Portillo was a Treasury minister on Black Wednesday and, having slavishly supported British membership of the ERM, then equally slavishly supported British non-membership, without any obvious demonstration of principle.

On non-financial matters there are even more embarrassments . Portillo pledges loyalty to Hague, just as he pledged loyalty to Major while commandeering a townhouse in Westminster as a potential campaign headquarters and filling it with telephone lines; but perhaps that lesson has been learnt. Less straightforward will be the forthcoming debates on Clause 28. Portillo indicated in an interview on the Today programme, the morning after his appointment, that he would support the retention of Clause 28 because for him it was an issue about the proprieties of spending public money. This, however, is unlikely to prevent him from being attacked as a hypocrite by homosexuals and others who will feel that he, as a man with homosexual experience, has committed an act of political and moral betrayal, and has once more put ambition before principle.

Although support for Portillo as a future leader is neither so strong nor so widespread as his acolytes would like to believe, his is the name that comes up most frequently when anybody asks about an alternative to Hague. It is cunning of Hague to put his main adversary in a job that has already seen off Peter Lilley and Maude. Whatever job he got, and whenever he was given it, Portillo was always going to have to keep himself, and his increasingly factional supporters, under tight control in terms of loyalty to Hague. All that suggests that Hague has been shrewd.

Elsewhere, though, Hague has done, or not done, some curious things. By putting a businessman in an important position - Archie Norman replacing Redwood as environment, transport and the regions spokesman - he has merely taken a leaf out of Tony Blair's book. Norman has cut no figure whatsoever in the Commons, and we await proof of his basic political skills.

John Maples's sacking is hard to fault: but why have others survived? Andrew MacKay, the Northern Ireland spokesman, has long appeared unduly challenged by his post; with the peace process in trouble, it was a very good time to make a change. Liam Fox, the health spokesman, has still not matched the tabloid press in effectiveness at exposing the ills of the NHS; and the number of NS readers who can name the shadow education spokeswoman almost certainly does not exceed her IQ.

It is on the performance and effectiveness of Portillo, however, that this reshuffle will ultimately be judged. There will be early opportunities for doing so, not merely when Clause 28 comes up, but also in the little matter of the Budget. Labour, too, has a problem with him: Labour, unlike Hague, recognises how much Portillo was, and is, the symbol of everything the public hated about the last government. The last thing it will want to do is to make life so hard for him that he does not survive to play an appropriately high-profile role in the next campaign.

The author, a "Daily Mail" columnist, is our Conservative Party correspondent