How Ann Fell out with Michael

By Kochan, Nicholas | New Statesman (1996), October 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

How Ann Fell out with Michael


Kochan, Nicholas, New Statesman (1996)


Once, Widdecombe seemed almost to have a crush on Portillo. But it has all turned sour. Nicholas Kochan reveals the origins of a Tory feud

A few years ago Ann Widdecombe, in confessional mode, would have had to admit to a certain fascination with Michael Portillo, the super-tough man of the right. She told friends, before the 1997 election, that she expected to vote for him as leader -- although, in the event, she voted for Kenneth Clarke. But she admired Portillo, who, as secretary of state for defence, had wowed a Conservative Party conference in 1995 by strutting about on stage and declaiming, in the words of the SAS, "who dares wins".

For Widdecombe, one anecdote, in particular, captured the spirit of the cool, calculating politician: his humiliation of an awkward civil servant in her presence, while the two served at the Department of Employment in the mid-Nineties. Portillo had summoned the eminent civil servant to ask about the criteria for measuring unemployment. The man, who belonged to a quasi-autonomous team, refused to yield to Portillo's pressure, so the minister picked up the phone and asked for the department's permanent secretary to come to the meeting to compel the civil servant to comply.

But there has been a cooling-off of her ardour -- indeed, six months ago, Widdecombe, now shadow home secretary, told friends that relations between her and Portillo, now shadow chancellor, were "ice cold" and that she suspected Portillo was deliberately refusing her funds for proposed policies.

The recent drugs debate, sparked by Widdecombe's conference speech and its proposed policy on fines for cannabis users, set a newly libertarian Portillo against the ultra-conservative shadow home secretary. The speech brought to the surface the feud between the two right-wing Tories, whom many see as jockeying to succeed William Hague as leader of the party. It is a feud that has been festering since well before Portillo's confession of a homosexual past and his subsequent makeover into a "touchy-feely" Conservative.

The bad blood between the two dates back to 1993, when Portillo was chief secretary to the Treasury and Widdecombe was parliamentary under-secretary of state in the Department of Social Security. The government had placed VAT on fuel, but had also made it clear that pensioners would be compensated for the extra cost. When Portillo gave an interview saying that the government would not compensate the full amount, but only an average of the extra cost, Widdecombe was sent out to justify the losses that some pensioners would suffer. She found the experience uncomfortable, and did not forget it.

The two managed to stay out of each other's hair until the following year, when Portillo was put in charge of the Department of Employment, where Widdecombe was minister of state. A dispute arose between Widdecombe and her deputy, Phillip Oppenheim, over who should pilot through the House of Commons the Disability Discrimination Bill 1995, a piece of legislation that put the onus on employers to care for disabled people. The bill had little attraction for Tories -- it had earlier been withdrawn under the tutelage of the hapless Nicholas Scott -- and when Widdecombe pushed Oppenheim into taking on the job, he protested to Portillo, arguing that Widdecombe "was touchy-feely and a woman". Portillo came down on Oppenheim's side, and Widdecombe took through the legislation.

She read Portillo's decision as further evidence that Portillo disliked her. Widdecombe later went so far as to ask a friend of hers, the Catholic MP David Amess, who was Portillo's parliamentary private secretary, to intercede, as she felt so remote from the then secretary of state.

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