Magazine article The Spectator

Right Suit for the Job

Magazine article The Spectator

Right Suit for the Job

Article excerpt

THE well-heeled, cut-glass and, let's face it, a touch self-satisfied elite of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea arrived ready to be seduced by the Castilian, and he charmed the votes off them by playing to their vanity. Sir Michael Craig-- Cooper, the Conservative Association president, put them in the mood by reminding the audience they were choosing someone to succeed Alan Clark, whom he described as `the distinguished diarist' rather than as a noted politician. In the end it was a stroll. As one of those present put it, `He was simply in a different league.'

Michael Portillo won on the first ballot with 530 of the 840 votes cast. Andrew Roberts, the historian and local activist, observed, `It was his for the taking and he didn't mess it up.' And, as he emerged triumphant to face the media, one could sense the red blood of the old Michael coursing back into his veins; the luxuriant swept-back hair gleaming - the oh-so-wide grin.

For all his protestations that he took nothing for granted, it was clear that Michael Portillo had not expected to spend Christmas without the initials MP after his name. One could almost forget the by-election itself; the coming necessity of trudging through the swanky streets, pursued by leather-jacketed gay activists, shouting and pouting about his failure to accept their political agenda.

The path back, it can now be told, was thoroughly prepared by others. Conservative Central Office had provided the local party with a shortlist of names on which Portillo was already the only star. Even on Tuesday senior CCO staff were swarming around the building. Here was Nick Wood, deputy head of press, there was Stephen Gilbert, director of campaigns, and there John Hayes, the Tory vice-chairman. And then there was Priti Patel, William Hague's personal press aide and Kevin Culwick, the press spokesman in charge of the by-election, and Adam Newton, another Tory press officer.

As the early rounds had progressed, a praetorian guard of young right-wingers, including Matthew Palmer and Mark Field, worked to clear away obstacles. Their help was important after Portillo's false start the revelation of his gay past was never intended to emerge quite so close to a selection contest, and the subsequent denunciations from some of the party elders clearly took him aback. But Michael Portillo has always been able to count on a hard core of fanatical supporters, even on those occasions when he might have wished otherwise, and they plotted to secure his return.

The forceful Philip Oppenheim was removed at the first round; when Hugo Swire, an old Etonian former Guards officer was tipped as Michael's main rival he fell at the next round - although the admission that he had neglected to vote in the local elections hastened his departure. By the last round there were Michael Portillo and three comparative political pygmies. Each had his merits. But as one present put it: `If I was Portillo and didn't beat these three I would go back to Spain.' Another was more generous: `They were all good men and they'll all get seats, but just not here.'

Portillo prepared meticulously. He spent the last days honing his speech and talking to his most trusted friends. By the time he came to deliver it he knew it so well he was able to speak without notes - the only one of the four who did. First came a dullish speech by Derek Conway, the only other former MP, which contained some jarring jokes of apology to the old Etonians present that he was sending his children to Harrow and was working now for the Cats Protection League. …

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