From Interstate - Journal of International Affairs VOL. 1999/2000 NO. 1
Michael Portillo Returns to Parliament
The former Defence Secretary and Member of Parliament for Enfield & Southgate, Michael Portillo, has been selected as the Conservative candidate for the safe Tory seat of Kensington & Chelsea. There is no doubt that the Conservative Party and indeed William Hague personally, will welcome Portillo, a man of great talent and a huge political beast, and look forward to his return to Westminster. While Portillo could potentially be a threat to Hague, both men know that their greatest threat is not each other, but Tony Blair and his Labour government. Therefore, the return and political renaissance of Portillo will be of greatest concern not to Hague, but to the Labour Party. Portillo is not returning to Westminster and the forefront of British politics to undermine Hague, or contemplate his own leadership chances, but to do all he can to get Hague elected to Downing Street and to scrutinise this Labour government.
This assertion is of course based upon the belief that Portillo will be elected. While there are few certainties in politics, Kensington & Chelsea is about as safe as Tory seats can get. Even in the Labour landslide of 1997, Alan Clark held this wealthy and cosmopolitan seat with a healthy majority: in excess of ten thousand. If the Tories can’t hold onto this seat, then Hague is in big trouble. The Labour Party has considered a number of tactics to stop Portillo. They initially urged the New Labour luvvie and actor Alan Rickman to stand, but recognised that good actors don’t necessarily make good Members of Parliament. Instead they have called in Stephen Twigg MP, who defeated Portillo in 1997, to ‘shadow’ the Labour candidate in what is expected to be a bitter and very personal campaign. Peter Tatchell, the Gay Rights activist and maverick, even considered standing as an ‘independent’ candidate in the contest, in an attempt to highlight ‘gay issues’ during the campaign, but not even his ego was prepared to accept such a crushing defeat. In what are difficult times for the Conservative Party, few things are as politically certain as the return of Portillo to Parliament.
Indeed, the most difficult process in Portillo’s return to Parliament was to gain the selection for the seat in the first place. It was by no means an automatic or obvious selection: there were over one hundred applicants, among them many talented and highly experienced politicians. Some expressed an interest even before Clark had been laid to rest. Following new procedures introduced by William Hague, Conservative Central Office whittled the list down to 18 people. These 18 then had to face the selection committee of the Kensington & Chelsea Conservative Association. This committee recommends which candidates go through to the Association’s executive, who in turn draws up a final list of five or six candidates who attend a Special General Meeting, to be selected by local Party members. It was at the interview
stage that Phillip Oppenheim, former MP for Amber Valley, and government minister, was dropped from the list. This charismatic figure in the party, who now earns a living through his trendy Cuban restaurant in London, mistakenly referred to Chelsea Football Club, unaware that Chelsea’s home ground, Stamford Bridge, is actually in a neighbouring constituency. With Oppenheim out, by the time of the final selection Portillo’s only real threat was Derek Conway, the former MP for Shrewsbury and leading right-winger. In the end however, at a packed meeting at a Hotel in the constituency, attended by over a thousand local party members, Portillo won in the first ballot, and was selected as the parliamentary candidate.
Many in the Conservative Party hope that Portillo will be returning to the front bench of British politics, and will not be languishing on the backbenches. Whatever position he is given – and it is widely speculated that Portillo could be made Party Chairman or Shadow Foreign Secretary – his introduction into the shadow cabinet would clearly identify Portillo as being in the Hague camp. Portillo is too much of a talent to be wasted on the backbenches. He will of course have to adapt to the new composition at Westminster. With a Labour majority of 179, he will be operating in a very different political climate to that which he knew as an MP previously. As a big hitter, his expertise, talents and ability to scrutinize the government will be welcomed on the Tory front bench. It also strengthens – not weakens – Hague’s clearly established line on the single currency. As the Conservatives are the only major political party ruling out UK entry to the euro at the next general election, the right of the party can be reassured that when it comes to the issue of Europe, they offer a clearly defined strategy that emphasises the importance of the British national interest. Portillo is a known euro-sceptic, whose views are clearly in line with the majority of the British people. With the support of William Hague, the backing of the Parliamentary Party and the expected endorsement of the people of Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster can only be better off for Portillo coming back to the national political scene.
Michael Portillo went on to gain a convincing victory in the Kensington and Chelsea by-election. Despite his initial statements in which he expressed his contentment with being merely a backbencher he was quickly promoted to the position of shadow chancellor. It therefore looks certain that as he has regained his standing as the right-wing darling of the Conservative Party, Portillo is back with force, as a ‘big- beast’ that may prove to be the death of the present Tory leader William Hague.
Portillo, a Cambridge graduate, was first elected to parliament in 1984, and held various ministerial and cabinet positions before he lost his seat – to his own and everyone else’s amazement, at the last election.
However, according to a Times MORI Poll carried out in February 2000, Portillo’s personal popularity with the electorate is at an all-time low.