Cock-up or conspiracy?

Media - Bill Hagerty on how a bunch of unlikely bedfellows undermined Michael Portillo

There are those who will consider the Sunday Telegraph's lead story claiming that Margaret Thatcher was supporting Michael Portillo for the leadership of the Conservative Party to be a monumental journalistic clanger. After all, the ink was hardly dry when the Baroness erupted, issuing a statement dismissing the story as "plain wrong". Dominic Lawson, the paper's editor, had no time to celebrate being named by the Guardian as the country's 83rd most influential media figure in deciding what we "watch, hear, read or download" (nowhere near as important as Chris Tarrant, Max Clifford or the News of the World's Rebekah Wade, but it's a start). The ceiling had already fallen in.

But was this no more than a genuine, gigantic cock-up? In media circles and around Westminster, there are murmurings of a conspiracy, although it should be noted that it is a theory put forward only by those who, if pressed, could find intrigue in a cornflakes packet. The murmurers will tell you - with much tapping of forefinger on the side of the nose - that a bunch of unlikely bedfellows united to torpedo Portillo and ensure that he had about as much chance of leading the Tories as, say, Jim Davidson, a celebrity Conservative not so good-looking as Portillo and, to me, nowhere near as amusing.

Those involved in what was to be the best plotted assassination since Julius Caesar was stabbed in the back by friends and admirers included the Daily Mail, Amanda Platell and, as I have indicated, Thatcher. The Fleet Street bruiser, William Hague's fragrant press secretary and the Iron Lady - a combination that would warrant an X-rating if ever the movie version were made.

The scenario opened shortly after Portillo's swerve towards a wishy-washy liberalism which included the view that the party should re-examine its commitment to upholding Section 28. The Mail polled Tory constituencies and produced its now infamous "We don't want you as leader" - the quotes are mine, not the Mail's - front page, plus a full-page feature on "Why Mr Portillo is wrong on Section 28".

If the Portillo camp was disconcerted by such vituperation, it must have been longing for a lie down and a cup of cocoa when news of Platell's clandestine video emerged. I had met Platell, a journalistic colleague of many years ago, at a party the previous evening, and she was innocence itself in discussing the leadership contest. The following morning, her hand grenade exploded in Portillo's trouser pocket.

But the most audacious double-whammy tactical ploy in the dismantling of Portillo's credibility came over the weekend. The imminent screening of Platell's home movie received widescreen coverage everywhere - "How the assassin in stilettos put the knife into Portillo" (the Observer) - and Andrew Rawnsley, in his column in the same newspaper, summed up the whole sorry mess in one pithy paragraph. "Tories aren't interested in Iain Duncan Smith as their leader for who he is, but because of who he isn't. He is the available instrument for all those Europhobic Tories who want anybody but Kenneth Clarke - so long as it isn't Michael Portillo. And he is the weapon of choice for all those homophobic Tories who want anybody but Michael Portillo - so long as it isn't Kenneth Clarke."

The same day, the Sunday Telegraph announced that Thatcher was backing Portillo. Given that he must have known this to be untrue, it would have made Portillo's Sunday even more miserable. By Monday, with the Platell aftermath and the Thatcher broadside, he must have been seriously considering tying a white handkerchief to a stick and waving it above the parapet.

What of the rest of the press's coverage of this political bun fight? The Telegraph and the Sun gave some added impetus to the anti-Portillo bandwagon - again, it was Section 28 that did it - although the Sun also rose to the heights of self-inflicted cock-upery, one day dismissing Duncan Smith and the next proclaiming: "We think Iain Duncan Smith might be our man." ( The Sunday Telegraph reported this anomaly in the very issue in which it made its own faux pas.) The other papers watched the continuing charade with the same kind of bemusement doubtless experienced by the public. David Aaronovitch got it right in the Independent: "They [the Tory party] seem to have decided, in light of Mr Portillo's quest for his true self, that the man is mad, bad and flighty." Full marks, then, to the conspirators.

There was no conspiracy. The three-pronged demolition of the man who was initially a country mile in front of the pack as favourite to lead the Tories was uncoordinated, even if the Mail and Platell's sandbaggings looked finely tuned, and the Telegraph cock-up was just that.

It is the 300,000 members of the Conservative Party who ultimately will decide on the new leader. But the heavy mob did its job properly. Portillo is already history. And Dominic Lawson, the 83rd most influential media person in the country and editor of the British Press Awards Newspaper of the Year, has so much egg on his face you could scramble it for breakfast.

Interestingly, and possibly of comfort to the 83rd most influential media person, the only national daily news-paper editors not included in the Guardian's Hot Hundred were those of the ailing Daily Express and its sprightly sister, the Daily Star. Richard Desmond, the chief executive of Northern & Shell and the proprietor of the Express Group, made it on to the list, in 29th place, extraordinarily ahead of the likes of Lord Rothermere and Alastair Campbell. Either the whole Guardian project was fatally flawed or OK! magazine and Asian Babes have a lot more clout than I realised.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, In the line of fire