Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Portillo Attracts the Floating Careerist, but There Is a Long, Sweaty Summer Ahead

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Portillo Attracts the Floating Careerist, but There Is a Long, Sweaty Summer Ahead

Article excerpt

For hundreds of years White's has been the nerve-centre of black Tory reaction. But there was a new mood at the club tent at Royal Ascot on Tuesday. As the runners and riders in the Tory leadership stakes were assessed, it became clear that support had swung behind Michael Portillo. Even his pedigree met with approval over the champagne and gulls' eggs. `Out of an asylum-seeker and with a homosexual past,' pronounced one Tory politician. `Perfect, couldn't be better.' One might have expected a remark like this to have gone down badly at the White's bar, but it did not. It was greeted with nods of approbation.

The great thing about the Tory defeat two weeks ago is that there is no arguing with it. If William Hague had been able, as most people expected, to return an extra 50 or so Tory MPs to Parliament, then matters might have been different. Things might have gone on as they were. But the Hague strategy is dead. At the tender age of 40, this good and talented man has gone down in history as the Michael Foot of the Tory party. 2001 is the Tory 1983, the moment when all but the most hidebound supporters realised that something had gone horribly wrong.

Michael Portillo is the beneficiary of this quest for a new Conservatism. Though fewer than 30 endorsements have been announced, in reality he can already count on the votes of more than half the parliamentary party. His campaign has already reached that virtuous stage, which John Major's reached in 1990 or William Hague's at a certain point in the summer of 1997, when it exerts a deadly gravitational pull on every floating careerist.

Edward Gamier, a sleek lawyer much in evidence at Ascot on Tuesday, has eased his way from Kenneth Clarke to Portillo. Stephen Dorrell, who is beginning to gain a reputation as an infallible indicator of the way the prevailing political wind is blowing, is for Portillo. An unnervingly large percentage of the nonentities who made up William Hague's shadow Cabinet are for Portillo. If this contest were being conducted along the lines of every other Tory leadership battle of the last three decades, it would all be over. Some are tempted to conclude that Michael Portillo has already won.

But the truth is that he can win the parliamentary stage of this leadership contest by whatever margin he likes and still be confronted with a run-off on equal terms with a single rival when the contest goes out to one-man-one-vote among Tory party members.

Nothing that William Hague did when he was party leader is being cursed with greater venom than the way he recast the rules for the Tory leadership election. The decision to give the rank and file the final power to elect a Tory leader seemed a good idea at the time: all part of the job of modernising the party. Now MPs are beginning to realise with a sickening sense of horror that the Hague reforms have had precisely the opposite effect.

All Tory MPs have ambivalent feelings towards their local membership. On the one hand, they are properly grateful (in some cases) for the work the rank and file do in distributing literature, running the party, raising money, etc. In some cases they even respect them as people, but, on returning to Westminster from their constituencies, they sit in the congenial surroundings of Annie's Bar or the Members' Tea Room, and they tell each other horror stories. …

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