Magazine article The Spectator

It's Sad in a Way, but Michael Portillo Is No Longer a Serious Figure

Magazine article The Spectator

It's Sad in a Way, but Michael Portillo Is No Longer a Serious Figure

Article excerpt


The prospect of war now eclipes everything at Westminster. To use the narrow, though reassuring, boundaries of the English racing calendar, hostilities are unlikely to break out before the final day of the Cheltenham Festival on 13 March. But they will probably have ceased, at any rate as far as the initial stage of the conflict is concerned, by the time the Grand National is run on 5 April.

From a parochial perspective, the next few weeks will go far towards determining how the Blair premiership is judged by historians. Since the 2001 general election the government has on a number of occasions given the impression that it will inevitably collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. It has lost momentum, giving the impression of being cast adrift. Successful resolution of the crisis will give the Prime Minister new confidence and a freer hand. Allies of Tony Blair believe that he will be able to use the aftermath of the Iraq imbroglio to reshape a Cabinet more to his liking, just as the Falklands war gave Margaret Thatcher her chance to wield the axe. Within Downing Street there is a view that success in Iraq will enable the Prime Minister to replace Gordon Brown at the Treasury. Nobody has any illusions that failure will enable Brown to replace Tony Blair in No. 10 Downing Street. 'One way or another, Gordon Brown will be out of No. 11 by Christmas,' says one admirer of the Prime Minister.

This short three-week period, as the days lengthen and the English spring takes hold, has a bearing on more than domestic politics. It will be decisive in shaping the world that will emerge over the next generation. In six weeks' time, we may be standing on the edge of a new barbarism, and be looking forward to an epoch of moral and economic impoverishment. The American alliance, upon which British foreign policy has been based for 60 years, may have sundered. The United Nations may play a full role in reaffirming the values of liberalism and a free world order. Or it may have drifted towards irrelevance. That is how much the coming days and weeks count for in all our lives.

The Conservative party chose this pregnant moment in our national history to embark upon one of its increasingly frequent spasms. The latest agitation might have been understandable, admirable even, had it been provoked by disagreement about the war. But it was not. It came about because Michael Portillo, failed contender in the 2001 leadership election, took exception to internal moves within Conservative Central Office.

Mr Portillo's allies assert that lain Duncan Smith provoked the crisis by making personnel changes; above all, by sacking his chief of staff, Mark MacGregor. But this claim has no merit. It is axiomatic that any party leader is entitled to choose his own people, even if others find those choices baffling. Last week's undignified and regrettable crisis was brought about not by Duncan Smith, but by his enemies. They attempted to turn the Central Office reorganisation into a cause c&bre that would destroy his leadership. In the end they failed, but they came perplexingly close to success.

The frenzy took full hold with Michael Portillo's extraordinary, contemptuous interview with The World At One last Friday lunchtime. It was an all-out attack on Duncan Smith. The motive can only have been the destruction of the current leadership. By a curious chance the attack immediately gained an appearance of momentum when Derek Conway, the incongruous replacement to Sir Edward Heath as MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, entered the fray. …

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