How Portillo dazzles to deceive

At last this parliament has a glittering by-election. Premature Christmas shoppers seeking their overpriced hampers in Kensington and Chelsea will be jostled by the media seeking a glimpse of Michael Portillo. But the by-election campaign will be a lot less interesting than what happens once Portillo has won it. His presence on the back benches will change entirely the context in which William Hague performs as leader of his party.

Until now, Hague has had no credible rival. Every unflattering opinion poll must have caused him some unease, but never in a way that called into question his future as leader. No Tory MP has looked up from the latest grim survey and said to himself: "That's it. Send for John Maples." Nor has a great battle-cry resounded around the parliamentary party: "Only Francis Maude can save us now." As I have argued before, Hague is a lucky politician. One of his pieces of good fortune is that for the past two and a half years he has been a towering figure compared with potential rivals in the shadow cabinet. This will not be the case for much longer. After the by-election, distraught Tory MPs will have in mind the alternative magisterial presence of Portillo when damaging headlines scream at them from the newspapers. No wonder Hague and his allies, while affecting delight at his imminent return, are in reality far from thrilled at the prospect.

Portillo has two advantages over Hague. Most obviously, he has not had to lead a traumatised party since its landslide defeat. Whoever had taken over the demoralised rump was doomed to short-term derision and failure. More intriguingly, Portillo has an aura, an enigmatic political personality, whereas Hague is more reminiscent of Harold Wilson without the electoral success. Portillo has been the subject of one biography and endless TV specials. No publisher or television producer has been queuing up for "specials" on Hague, although he was the last Conservative to win a by-election when his party was in government, the youngest cabinet minister during the Tories' 18 years of power and the youngest leader of his party this century.

There must be a book in all of that somewhere, but it is Portillo who excites. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. Recently he has become a good television performer, but for a long time he was a nervy interviewee. He is not an inspiring platform speaker, even if his audiences tend to arrive in a state of evangelical fervour. As a politician, he was often cautious rather than an adventurous risk-taker. In the gripping Major Years on BBC1, John Major offered a revealing suggestion as to why his defence secretary did not stand against him in the 1995 leadership contest. Portillo, according to Major, was too polite. He would have wanted to inform Major first of his intentions and then consulted more widely. It was not Portillo's style to disappear for a weekend, play cricket and then launch a challenge, as John Redwood did. Yet it is Portillo, to Redwood's continuing fury, who has the aura.

In this sense, Portillo represents a challenge to Tony Blair as well. He has the knack of being able to say very little and then be treated in the media as a philosopher-king. Indeed the Times, in an editorial, crowned him thus in the mid-1990s after an epic speech on the importance of cutting public spending. He delivered it shortly after his spell as chief secretary to the Treasury when expenditure had gone up, but that didn't seem to matter.

At last month's party conference, he addressed a fringe meeting on education saying little more than how much he had enjoyed his grammar school. The speech had already been published as a pamphlet before he had spoken. His most famous post-election address, urging a more compassionate conservatism, was typical. There was more froth than substance. But in an opposition party not exactly drowning in froth, who's complaining?

Which is why his return tells us much more about the state of the Conservative Party than it does about the intriguing personality of Portillo. As far as I can tell, Portillo's views on policy have not greatly changed, even if his rhetoric has mellowed. He remains an unequivocal opponent of the single currency. His views on public spending no doubt chime with those of the leadership, which offers a "guarantee" that the tax burden will fall in the next parliament. As everything Portillo says is turned into a pamphlet, I have been able to check very thoroughly. There is no indication where his cuts would fall. Had he been in the Commons last Wednesday night, he would no doubt have voted against the government's attempts to prune the social security budget, although this is the gold mine his party is theoretically pledged to raid. So far, Portillo's sums, like his party's, do not add up.

In other words, the Eurosceptic tax cutter fits the current Conservative Party like a glove, as he would have done after the 1997 defeat. Two and a half years later, the Tories are stuck with a Thatcherite agenda that cannot win them the next election, but over which most of them can unite. Portillo will not have to consult his conscience each morning as he proclaims the Common Sense Revolution.

There is a revealing contrast. When Tony Benn returned to the Commons just a few months after Labour had been slaughtered in 1983, it was already clear that Neil Kinnock was reforming in a way that would make Benn a peripheral figure. Benn continued to dazzle with his oratory, but even he knew that he would not be a leading figure in his party again. Portillo is a very different personality, but his effortless prominence when he returns to the Commons - he will be party chairman by the summer - shows that the Conservatives have not yet even begun the journey back to power.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people