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16 October 2000

My date with Michael Portillo

Tim Teeman wants to put some questions to the shadow chancellor. He imagines an evening out

By Tim Teeman

I want to date Michael Portillo. It wouldn’t be sexual: it couldn’t be, Michael apparently isn’t gay any more. No, it would be purely educational. Michael might say this was a little intrusive and unnecessary, but his is a particularly intriguing Pandora’s box: there are too many puzzling questions left hanging – by him, rather than by nasty gay militants.

I’d make our evening fun; begin by taking him to a few gay bars. He could tell me what kind of men he used to like: perhaps skinny blonds, perhaps bruisers with muscles. Maybe his first crushes were from Harrow’s rowing and rugby teams.

He could tell me how you stop being gay so suddenly (he claims to have had “homosexual experiences as a young person” but won’t elaborate). Then we’d have some gentle joshing about the faintly implausible road to Damascus he has travelled, in between losing his Enfield Southgate seat at the 1997 election and winning Kensington and Chelsea.

If we believe Portillo, we believe that the 1997 election, when he lost, ironically, to the openly homosexual Stephen Twigg, chastened him. In what makes for a perfect dramatic arc, the bullying, free-marketeering baddie, newly humbled, reconsidered his life, realised what a damn fool he had been, cogitated some Proust and began preaching love for the poor and oppressed. Not for nothing did one delegate note: “The reinvention is complete.”

At our restaurant – somewhere groovy and smart but not skittish or political, say Lola’s in Islington – the starters arrive. New Portillo forgoes waxy fois gras for seared scallops. I compliment him for walking a knife-edge so nimbly; for sticking, however awkwardly in the lions’ den, to the principle of inclusion. “The Conservative Party looks for things that mark people out as individual and exceptional. We are for people, whatever their sexual orientation,” he told the conference. But Michael, what do you think about Section 28, the unnaturalness of gay parents and the ban on gays in the military? He doesn’t answer, but takes a stern-faced slug of preprandial champagne.

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Some of my gay friends believe Portillo is, and always has been, gay. I’m not sure, but I’m fascinated by his distanced sermonising on the subject, which prompts more questions than it answers – not least because, since the confession, two alleged ex-boyfriends (the second from Portillo’s mid-twenties) have come forward, making one wonder: when did he cease being “a young person”?

As the wine arrives (and the trimmer new Portillo wants only two glasses of house red), he concedes he is scared: the visibility and acceptability of homosexuality is considerably greater in popular culture than in politics. He’s neither frothily camp (Graham Norton) nor woolly and unthreatening (Chris Smith). While he puts it in speeches, Portillo fears, rightly, a narrowing of public perception if he makes his own sexuality a central issue. Portillo’s sexuality, quite unintentionally, belongs in the category “post-gay”: indefinable, intrinsic and admirably out of step with these pigeonhole-obsessed times. And, anyway, the openly gay Labour MPs are so conventional, so dreary and righteous.

Portillo ruefully digs into a porridgey dollop of lemon and parsley risotto. He muses on the absurdist cloud hanging over Ted Heath, for ever the confirmed bachelor, whom one interviewer called “a repressed something, although a repressed what, I couldn’t say”. Portillo asks me to consider the stalled careers of Tory gays: the ones caught soliciting sex on Hampstead Heath; luminaries such as Sir Michael Hirst, who quit as chairman of the Scottish party in 1997 after allegations of a gay affair (he eventually admitted an “indiscretion” in his past). Portillo doesn’t want to be patronised, doesn’t want his “young person” sexuality to be an Achilles heel. He recalls the fate of the former Welsh secretary Ron Davies, who was ruined by his “moment of madness” on Clapham Common, and who later grudgingly revealed bisexuality and a childhood history of brutality – after which his marriage fell apart. He can’t imagine being Peter Mandelson, not saying the “G” word, yet being photographed with his “friend” out shopping.

“Look, are you gay, or aren’t you?”

Portillo gazes absently at the restaurant pianist (playing a tinkly version of “The Way We Were”).

I tell him that there was something fairly insulting about his demi-coming out, something that tapped into the prejudices of those who dismiss homosexuality as a phase, a fever you can throw off if you want. What kind of message are you sending to gay prospective candidates, tempted back to the party by his message of inclusion, yet unsettled by his qualified declaration? Should they tell selection committees about their partners? Or say, yes, they have had gay sex, but it’s over now?

Salving your conscience by preaching equality is nice, Michael, but if you’re gay you need to come out – and we want to know, once and for all, what your homosexual life consisted of, and what line you take on the anti-gay bigotry peddled by your party.

I opt for a change of tack at this point. Why vote consistently against equality and then finally vote for an equal age of consent last February? Even when he came out, he defended years of voting against 16, thus: “I took the view that gay sex could easily be more traumatic for a young man of 16 than heterosexual sex would generally be for a girl of 16.” Why the change? Not wanting to be defined by your sexuality is fine, but blocking civil rights for a minority is not.

We skip dessert. While hailing taxis, I put a theory to him. His coming out was calculated and deliberately incomplete. The members like a bit of raffish mystery; look at Alan Clark. This way, Portillo sates his ambition, makes good old closeted regret and outflanks his rivals. He just hopes he can keep the issue of his sexuality unthreatening. Endgame: after dumping a flailing Hague, the Tories get an attractively flawed, yet strong and compassionate leader.

“What an outrageous supposition,” he’d wink before disappearing into the night, adding gruffly over his shoulder: “And thanks for the date. Let’s do it again.”

Tim Teeman writes for the Times