Portillo's Militant Tendency

Simon Heffer reveals how the new Shadow Chancellor's devotees seek to purge the Tory party of anyone

By the weekend after his surprise sacking from the shadow cabinet, John Redwood at last knew why he had gone. It was not because William Hague hated him or did not trust him. It was not because Michael Portillo had demanded his head on a plate as a condition of joining the top table. It was because the Conservative Party's own focus groups said that the public found him an unequivocal turn-off.

That, at least, is what Hague was told: indeed, what he had repeatedly been told for over a year. No wonder he had not been able to give Redwood, in their tense conversation at the time of his sacking, the true reasons for his actions. No wonder he would not, subsequently, admit them in public, such as when questioned by Sir David Frost on the Sunday after the reshuffle. Such an admission would have revealed the extent to which the Conservative Party is run by focus groups.

The very nature of the focus groups themselves, their planning and organisation, and the way that the data compiled from their deliberations is sifted and presented, have a direct bearing, therefore, on the composition of the team with which William Hague is planning to fight the next election. And Hague may still not yet realise how far the focus-group system is being manipulated by those who seek to promote a particular faction within his party, with the ultimate aim of ensuring that their candidate is in pole position to replace Hague when he finally goes.

The faction concerned is made up of adherents of Michael Portillo. It must be stressed that there is no evidence that Portillo himself knows of their activities on his behalf. However, a growing number of people in the parliamentary party and in Central Office are now aware of this factionalism, and express disgust at it.

About a year ago, according to colleagues, Redwood became aware that Hague was paying more and more attention to the findings of the focus groups set up by the party and run by a senior Central Office worker, Andrew Cooper. He also heard that these focus groups were producing results that showed Redwood himself in a less than flattering light. These rumours came straight from Central Office, from Portillistas who had seen some of the findings of the groups and who, as part of a campaign run since the summer of 1995 to denigrate and destroy Redwood, chose to make these findings selectively available to influential people in the party and the media. The received wisdom was soon established that, in public relations terms, Redwood was a disaster.

Hague was not immediately convinced. When the Portillistas regularly briefed the press that Redwood was for the chop, Hague put out counter-briefings professing his faith in Redwood. When he had the opportunity last summer to sack Redwood, he simply moved him sideways, from the trade and industry brief to the transport, environment and the regions portfolio.

Hague sought to restore some sort of order by sanctioning a clear-out of the Portillistas. One, Michael Simmonds, was fired when it was deemed he had leaked a speech by Peter Lilley that seemed to be distancing the party from the free-market ethic.

Cooper, whose devotion to his spiritual leader was such that he had a Michael Portillo screen-saver on his computer screen, learnt shortly afterwards that his contract would not be renewed. Crucially, however, Cooper's services were retained for a further three or four months by the party to analyse and number-crunch the findings of focus groups: an activity that, as Philip Gould found when he discharged it on behalf of new Labour, puts the co-ordinator of the exercise in a remarkably powerful position.

Cooper's role was to design questions for the groups, and to brief their convenors on what sort of questions they should ask, and how they should ask them. There is no suggestion that Cooper distorted, falsified or altered any of these groups' findings; however, there is a belief among the non-Portillistas that the facts about certain members of the shadow cabinet, as presented to the leadership, while true, were not the only interpretation that could be advanced.

When the focus-group question and its bearing on him first came up, Redwood asked at a shadow cabinet meeting to see the findings; but when they were eventually made available to him, the findings were vague. Redwood is not without friends in Central Office, and one of them leaked him the complete set of findings. They showed that on two crucial questions - viz. which shadow minister gave the greatest impression of honesty, and which had the most credibility - Redwood scored more than any of his colleagues.

These findings had not been given a wider audience. It is a matter for conjecture whether Hague was informed of the full details of what the focus groups were saying before he sacked Redwood. We do know that a focus-group question about Hague's own popularity was answered so resoundingly negatively that it was taken off the list.

There is plenty of cause to suppose that the removal of Redwood from the shadow cabinet represents the greatest triumph the supporters of Portillo have had so far in their campaign to eliminate opposition to their hero within the party. Because Redwood had been unswervingly loyal to Hague, and because most of his political enterprises - the undermining of Lord Sainsbury, Margaret Beckett and John Prescott to name but three - had resulted in positive media coverage for his party, new and more subtle means of wrecking his career had to be sought.

Once Hague decided to set store by focus groups, the weaponry was in place.

According to an Express story recently, Portillo's friends are now aiming to remove the remaining obstacles in Central Office to their faction: notably Sebastian Coe, Hague's chief of staff, and Amanda Platell, his press officer. Oddly, the assumption among Tory MPs is that the story was planted by Alan Duncan, the MP for Rutland and Melton, who is an admirer of Portillo's. Duncan, however, says he has never spoken to the story's author, Patrick O'Flynn. It is more likely that the story was given life by the Central Office Portillistas.

Either way, things are getting pretty dirty. The recent spattering in the papers of stories announcing that Hague's leadership was in trouble and that an alliance of right and left would unite behind Redwood to take him on was complete nonsense - and, again, it has been traced back to those who think they prosecute Portillo's interests. Redwood has told all around him that he will not challenge Hague for the leadership now or in the future. Likewise, it was the Portillistas themselves who were to blame for the untrue stories that Portillo had insisted on Redwood's removal before he would agree to serve, for they made much of "negotiations" that were said to have taken place between Hague and Portillo before the appointment was made. There were brief negotiations, handled by Hague's PPS, John Whittingdale, to ascertain that there was a compatibility of view between Hague and Portillo. It has now emerged that, in direct calls between the two principals, Hague appears to have given Portillo extensive leeway over remaking Tory economic policy. The details of this have been spun aggressively by the Portillistas as part of their campaign to undermine Hague.

As well as their campaign against Hague, the Portillistas are gunning for two other shadow cabinet members, Ann Widdecombe and Iain Duncan-Smith. The first is the darling of the grassroots, and a real threat to the Portillo succession: the second, although low-profile, is widely admired by the right of the party and could split the right's vote in a leadership contest. They now appear to be the Portillo faction's new main targets.

Hague, and indeed Portillo, can have an influence on this destructive behaviour. A brief inquiry will tell them who the culprits are, and they also know the ease with which the party can be turned, if it so desires, into a mirror-image of Labour circa 1982. Portillo, especially, is shrewd enough to know how counter-productive are such activities undertaken in his name, which is why it defies belief that he can know much about them, let alone sanction them. Hague could also tell his party chairman, Michael Ancram, to stop pretending that this factionalism is not happening, and impose some discipline in his own house.

There are two final ironies. The first is that hardline right-wingers who idolised Portillo - such as Michael Simmonds, who leaked the heretical Lilley speech - now find their reinvented man protesting that the party is "no longer ideological" and that, in endorsing a minimum wage, their hero chooses to dine a la carte from the menu of Thatcherite liberal economics. As with focus groups, this imitation of new Labour's freedom from principle will test the devotion of a few who thought they were getting something different.

The second is that the leadership contest about which the Portillistas lie awake at night fantasising may be some way off. The Tories are doing badly in the polls; but Labour is vulnerable in dozens of semi-rural marginal seats where, although the Tories may not be popular, they have the advantage of not being Labour. Hague could, without lifting a finger, and barring any further disasters, add 70 or 80 seats to the Tories' total at the next election for this reason alone.

That would not put him anywhere near power, but it would be a trumpeted as a personal vindication. He is eight years younger than Portillo. By the time he chooses to go of his own accord, today's factions could well look very dated indeed. A whole new set of personality cults will have long since joined in internecine wars as yet unimagined, and Michael Portillo could well have fulfilled his destiny of becoming the Rab Butler, or the Michael Heseltine, of the blank generation.

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