Magazine article The Spectator

Bye Bye, Mr Nice Guy

Magazine article The Spectator

Bye Bye, Mr Nice Guy

Article excerpt

HE would not stoop to conquer. The tragedy of Michael Portillo was not that he yearned for power too lustily, but that he pursued it too temperately. The man stigmatised as the Tories' exquisite intriguer, damned for his disloyalty, blasted for his egotism, was really undone by his fastidiousness, compromised by his loyalty, torpedoed for daring to doubt. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

For an electorate drip-fed poison about his alleged plotting, the suggestion that Portillo was more spinned against than spinning may seem hard to credit. Have we not seen with our own eyes the tear-stained Amanda Platell lament his base intrigues against William Hague? Have we not heard with our own ears the martyred Ann Widdecombe pronounce anathema on Portillo's malevolent coterie of backbiters? Can we not recall the serpent's trail left by the 40 phone-lines he installed for the abortive leadership campaign planned behind John Major's back? This man, surely, was the bastard's bastard.

The truth, as ever, is more deep. To know all in Michael Portillo's case is not to forgive all, but he is not, has never been, a figure twisted by ambition. He is a politician who has been compromised by his complexities.

The froideur which developed between him and Amanda Platell sprang not from disloyalty on Portillo's part but from a sense of wounded pride. On his return to the shadow Cabinet he was destabilised by Platell's continual insinuations and counter-briefings. Whenever Portillo suggested to Hague in party discussions that a different approach might be profitable, Platell told others he was really seeking to advance his own claims and not the whole party's prospects.

Portillo's bewilderment that the leader's press secretary should see it as her job to police him and not arrest Labour's progress in the polls led him to contemplate quitting frontline politics. Call such doubts weakness if you will, but it is not the behaviour of a bastard. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

But what of the backbiting towards Ann Widdecombe, the feeling on the part of the shadow home secretary that she was singled out for criticism by Portillo's people and had to retaliate in kind?

I cannot peer into Miss Widdecombe's soul. That is a pleasure best left to her confessor, the infinitely patient Father Michael Seed. So I cannot judge quite why she takes such pleasure in launching personal attacks on former Cabinet ministers of real talent. I only know that the criticisms I heard directed towards Miss Widdecombe's more authoritarian pronouncements never needed direction from Michael Portillo, or from any other party elder. They only needed Miss Widdecombe's speeches.

The opposition provoked by her spot-- fine plan for cannabis users, the unease caused by her wish to ban fox-hunting, the unhappiness created by her strictures on homosexuality were all felt by practically every Tory I knew under 40. Those who bit back were nobody's lackeys. They were Toryism's future.

That some of those most distressed by Miss Widdecombe's ultramontane politics should attach themselves to the liberal Portillo was understandable. That one or two of them had made their distaste known, if not wisely, then too well, was regrettable.

Portillo was advised by some of his shrewdest campaigners that it would be wise to exclude from his team the more energetic and less judicious of his young followers. Though they might be guilty of no more than overenthusiasm, nevertheless he should publicly demonstrate that he had no time for the excesses which opponents claimed were committed in his name. …

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