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British Conservative Politician
Born 1953

One of the high priests of Thatcherism during his time in government between 1986 and 1997, Michael Portillo later began to develop more liberal views in opposition and became an advocate of compassionate Conservatism. Having failed to became leader of the Conservative Party in 2001, he later retired from active political involvement and has embarked on a second career in the media as a journalist, political commentator and television presenter.

Early life

Born Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo on the born 26th May 1953 in North London, his father Luis Gabriel Portillo was a former Spanish Republican who fled Spain after Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War, whilst his mother Cora Blyth, was the daughter of John W. Blyth, a wealthy Scottish linen manufacturer. He was educated at Harrow County School for Boys and in 1972 won a scholarship to Peterhouse College, Cambridge where he read history and graduated with first-class honours in 1975.

From 1975 he worked for the Ocean Transport and Trading Company at their air freight operation in Heathrow Airport but left in 1976 to join the Conservative Research Department. During the 1979 General Election he was given the job of briefing Margaret Thatcher on the morning newspapers each day, and after the Conservative victory in that election became special adviser to the Secretary of State for Energy, David Howell. In 1981 he went to work for Kerr McGee Oil (UK) Ltd but left that company in 1983 to concentrate on his political career, again becoming a special adviser, firstly to Cecil Parkinson as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and then to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson from 1983 to 1984. In search of a seat in the House of Commons, he fought the Birmingham Perry Barr by-election in 1983 and lost, but was successful in the Enfield Southgate by-election held in the following year.1

Political career 1986-1997

Now a member of the House of Commons and having already made the acquaintance of the Prime Minister, it wasn't long before Portillo joined the government. He served his political apprenticeship as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to John Moore, the Secretary of State for Transport in 1986 and then as an Assistant Whip from 1986 to 1987. He later served as Junior Social Security minister (1987-1988) and had spells as Minster for Transport (1988-1990) and Minister for Local Government (1990-1992).

The golden boy of Thatcherism, he begged Margaret Thatcher to stay on as Prime Minister in 1990. No doubt disappointed by her insistence on resigning, he continued to serve her successor and following John Major's surprising victory in the 1992 General Election, Portillo was promoted to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In 1994 he became Secretary of State for Employment and in the following year Secretary of State for Defence.

Despite being the Thatcherite's choice back in 1990, Major had in many ways proven to be disappointment to the Conservative Right and it was Portillo who emerged as their standard bearer, backed by a band of Portillistas. When Major's position as party leader seemed under threat there were persistent whispers that Portillo meant to stand against him, and there were well substantiated tales that his supporters had a campaign headquarters ready to run at a moment's notice. (He is believed to have been of those Cabinet rebels denounced by Major as a 'bastard'.) In the event Portillo never did run against Major and when the Prime Minister decided to submit himself to re-election as party leader in 1995 ('back me or sack me') Portillo came out in support of Major. His political enemies were to suggest that this showed a certain inability on his part to make up his mind.

Nevertheless Portillo was now spoken of as a politician of the first rank and the outstanding Conservative of his generation, a future leader of both the party and the country.

Were you up for Portillo?

The Major government stuttered on until the final debacle of the 1997 General Election when the Conservative party suffered one of its greatest ever electoral defeats. Portillo proved to be one of the most senior victims of the Conservative collapse, loosing his Enfield seat to the Labour Party. Lance Price, a reporter on the BBC's live election broadcast was to say that the news of Portillo's defeat "provoked the biggest single outbreak of massed cheering in Britain at least since the 1966 World Cup". By 1997 Portillo has come to symbolise everything that was ruthless about the Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party epitomised, perhaps, by his appearance at the 1995 party conference wearing a SAS combat jacket. Thus Portillo's loss of his seat at Enfield became symbolic of the public's perceived rejection of Conservative ideology. 2

Of course it had been expected that the Conservatives would be defeated (only the scale of the defeat seemed to be at issue) and that Major would therefore resign. Informed opinion would likely have nominated Portillo himself as Major's most likely successor, but as things turned out, the loss of his Enfield seat meant that Portillo had to sit at home and idly stand to one side as William Hague took over as Party leader. With his political career now on hold, Portillo returned to work for Kerr McGee Oil as an adviser, and also began to develop a media career. He wrote a weekly column for The Scotsman, was commissioned by Channel 4 to produce a three part series on politics under the title Portillo’s Progress, and also presented a programme in BBC2’s Great Railway Journeys series, which largely focussed on his father's experiences in Spain.

Perhaps Portillo was surprised at the evident glee that so many people expressed at his public humiliation in 1997, it certainly provided him with the inspiration to reflect on the scale of the party's defeat and his own part in it. At the 1997 Tory Conference he showed indications of the direction he was taking when he argued that party was perfectly capable of "comprehending the diversity of human nature" and asserted that "Tolerance is part of the Tory tradition." Having engaged in a period of self-analysis and reflection, he appears to have undergone a process of reinvention by which Portillo the Thatcherite warrior became Portillo the caring Conservative.

Portillo comes out of the closet

Ever since the 1990s there had been various rumours circulating regarding Portillo's sexuality. Some of the more scurrilous allegations had appeared in Scallywag, a now defunct scandal sheet, and a similarly now extinct gossip magazine called Spiked, which was largely financed by Mohamed Al-Fayed, who had his own reasons for wanting to embarrass the Conservative Party. But thanks to the lack of any hard evidence and the operation of the British libel laws the mainstream media had kept well away from the story. (Although it later emerged that MI5 had kept a dossier on Portillo entirely "for his own protection" as they regarded him as being at risk from blackmail.)

On the 9th September 1999, The Times published an in-depth interview with Michael Portillo, conducted by one Ginny Dougary, where he was quoted as saying that he "had some homosexual experiences as a young person". He later expanded on this statement to make it "perfectly clear that all the time I have been in public life there has been nothing of this sort whatsoever". To the British tabloid press this was manna from heaven. The Daily Mirror ran the story under the headline "PORTILLO: I HAD GAY SEX", the Daily Mail went for "PORTILLO ADMITS: I HAD GAY LOVERS IN COLLEGE", the Daily Express preferred "PORTILLO: MY GAY FLINGS", whilst the The Sunproclaimed "PORTILLO: I had gay sex in past, but I never had fling with Peter Lilley". (Peter Lilley being another Conservative ex-minister about whom similar suspicions had been raised.) Portilloa seems to have been rather surprised at the level of excitement generated, and remarked that he "rather naively imagined it would not have attracted so much press interest".

One of the more curious aspects of the affair was that the interview had actually taken place a few months previously on the 26th July. There was later some speculation as to the reasons behind the timing of the publication since (fairly obviously) Portillo had ambitions to return to Parliament and in particular had his eye on the safe seat of Kensington and Chelsea, now vacant following the death of Alan Clarke on the 5th September 1999. Thus as The Times itself was later to suggest, the interview was "deliberately designed to end years of rumour that dogged his political career" with its publication timed to 'clear the decks' before Portillo mounted his campaign to win the nomination for Kensington and Chelsea.3

Peter Tatchell of Outrage!, who apparently regarded Portillo as a 'hypocrite', wrote to Nicholas Paget-Brown, the Association's chairman, promising that Portillo would be "harried, shamed, embarrassed and ridiculed at every opportunity" should he be chosen. (Tatchell being representative of that shade of opinion who believes that anyone who has partaken in certain sexual acts is somehow obliged to hold specific views.)

In the event the Kensington and Chelsea Conservative Association did not appear unduly concerned about Mr Tatchell's threats and Portillo was indeed selected as the Conservative candidate for Kensington and Chelsea, being duly re-elected to the House of Commons in the by-election held on the 25th November 1999. On the 1st February 2000 he joined the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Chancellor, replacing Francis Maude who moved over to Foreign affairs. Within a few days of his promotion he was on his feet in the House of Commons making an announcement that a future Conservative Government would respect the independence of the Bank of England, and retain the minimum wage. He also appeared to abandon any guarantee that the party would reduce taxation when next in office. At the time this was widely seen as clear signal that Portillo was exerting his own authority over policy, thereby undermining that of William Hague. It was soon rumoured that the Portallistas were working hard behind the scenes in an attempt to propel their man to his rightful place at the head of the party. For his part Portillo consistently denied that he had any plans to oust William Hague as party leader, and even on one occasion claimed that he had given up any ideas whatsoever of leading the party. In the meantime he made a speech to the party conference in 2000 which largely ignored the question of economic policy (which was his brief as Shadow Chancellor) and concentrated instead on social issues making it clear that he was advocating a radical new direction for the party.

The 2001 leadership contest

At the 2001 General Election held on the 7th June, Portillo held on to his seat as did most other Conservative MPs. Unfortunately there was little sign of any advance by the party from the nadir of 1997 and with only one extra seat gained, William Hague duly resigned as party leader on the 8th June. Despite his previous disavowals, Portillo became the first candidate to announce that he would stand and the bookmakers favourite to win. However the result of the first ballot of MPs was less than encouraging; although Portillo came top of the poll his lead was much less than expected.

The problem was that, whereas Portillo might well have been the darling of the party's right wing before 1997, many of the hard-core Thatcherites now thought he had gone soft. Norman Tebbitt for one, pointedly referred to Iain Duncan Smith as being a "normal, family man with children". The result of the final ballot of MPs on the 17th July was a damned close run thing; Kenneth Clarke topped the poll with 59 votes whilst Iain Duncan Smith edged out Portillo into third place by 54 votes to 53. How and why Portillo failed to make the cut is question certainly a feeling amongst some Conservative MPs that the party simply could not be led by someone who had admitted to even a casual dalliance with homosexuality.4

"I think the time has come for me to look for other things to do"

In the immediate aftermath of his rejection by his fellow MPs, Portillo announced that "I don't intend ever to be on the frontbench again and for the avoidance of doubt I'm not interested in the leadership", whilst insisting that his political career would continue; "You really shouldn't pay attention to gossip, I'm going to stay in politics." In the event Iain Duncan Smith did not prove to be a particularly wise or happy choice as party leader. It appeared to many that Portillo was simply waiting in the wings for his chance to plunge the knife in, and earned himself the reputation of being one of the leading anti-IDS plotters. In the event Portillo supported Michael Howard when he was crowned as party leader in November 2003 and promptly announced his intention not to seek re-election to the House of Commons and did not contest the 2005 General Election.

Since leaving parliament Portillo has been focussed on developing his media career. In 2003 he began appearing on the weekly political discussion programme This Week on BBC1, with fellow presenters Andrew Neil (former editor of The Sunday Times) and the Labour MP Diane Abbott. He also hosted his own discussion programme, Dinner with Portillo for BBC4, and appeared on various other programmes for the BBC including Art that shook the world, Richard Wagner’s Ring, and Portillo in Euroland, When Michael Portillo Became a Single Mum, Portillo Goes Wild in Spain, and put the case for Elizabeth I in the series Great Britons. In print he was the theatre critic of The New Statesman between 2004 and 2006 and since 2004 has written a weekly column for The Sunday Times. Most recently Portillo has joined The Moral Maze team on BBC Radio 4 and like many former politicians he is available for hire as a keynote or after dinner speaker, offering his opinions on such topics as "Global Security, Employment, Globalisation and Conflict Resolution".

Michael Portillo is also a member of the International Commission on Missing Persons in the former Yugoslavia and President of DebRA, the national charity working on behalf of people suffering from Epidermolysis Bullosa. He was director of BAE Systems plc from 2002 to 2006, and has since joined the board of the Kerr McGee Corporation. He is married to Carolyn Claire Eadie, a chartered accountant who now works for the recruitment consultancy Spencer Stuart Associates. They first met when they were at school and have no children, although nothing should be read into this fact, it is simply that his wife is unable to have children as a result of treatment received for cancer.

Some people with long memories will recall that a very youthful Michael Portillo once appeared in a television advertisement as the Ribena Kid back in 1961.


NOTES

1 The previous incumbent, Anthony Berry, was one of those killed in the Grand Hotel Bombing in Brighton.

2 Ironically given what happened later, Stephen Twigg, the successful Labour candidate at Enfield was homosexual.

3 It later emerged that Portillo's youthful "homosexual experiences" were mostly with a fellow student named Nigel Hart. Subsequent to Portillo's revelation, Nigel Hart gave a number of press interviews where he gave further information regarding their relationship. He stated that he had first met Portillo in December 1971 at a "gay cocktail party" hosted by a London University professor known as 'Madge the Fladge'. Hart was initially to claim that they first had sex when Portillo went to Cambridge the following year, but later modified this claim and stated that Portillo had been twenty when it first happened, whilst adding that he believed that he was "not his first male lover". (Such detail mattered to some as when Portillo was a "young person" the homosexual age of consent was twenty-one.)
The relationship had continued until 1976 when Hart went to Manchester to work as an information officer for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, but resumed when Hart moved to London in 1977 and continued until 1981 when Michael Portillo got engaged to Carolyn Eadie. According to Hart, "We used to have sex together when the opportunity arose, but it was quite straightforward - it wasn't particularly passionate." Nigel Hart discovered that he was HIV-positive in 1989 and died of liver failure on 13th December 1999 at the age of forty-eight.

4 On the 15th July 2001 the Sunday Telegraph had published a story under the headline 'Thatcher says Portillo is the right leader'. Responding to what they believed to be the unimpeachable source of Charles Powell they reported that Margaret Thatcher had bestowed her blessing on Portillo. However on the following day the Daily Telegraph stated in its editorial that "The story is false. It was denied by Lady Thatcher's office on Saturday, and again, by her personally, yesterday." It appeared to many that the original story had been the deliberate creation of the Portillo campaign in a desperate attempt to curry favour, whereas in reality it seems that the Sunday Telegraph was simply trying to be helpful, believing that Thatcher's endorsement might win Portillo an extra vote or two. In the end it appears most likely as if they lost Portillo those key votes that condemned his career to oblivion.


SOURCES

  • Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo at The Knitting Circle myweb.lsbu.ac.uk/stafflag/michaelportillo.html
  • Biographical information at
    http://www.michaelportillo.co.uk/
    http://www.speakers-uk.com/profile.phtml?id=296&act_id=1&sid=29
  • Portillo, the Thatcherite who turned, 13 June, 2001 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/1383605.stm
  • VOTE2001: Candidates Michael Portillo http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/5082162.stm
  • Martin Kettle, Labour hopes the Tories never reach Planet Portillo, The Guardian October 14, 2003 http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1062383,00.html
  • Stephen Glover, Portillo-Thatcher blunder sensation, or what happens when two unimpeachable sources collide The Spectator July 21, 2001

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