Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Portillo Myth

A propos of whether David Miliband should challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership of the Labour Party, there has been much discussion of late over whether there are tides in a politician's life which if taken at the flood lead on to fortune, etc, and whether, in apparently passing-up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Miliband is kissing goodbye to his chance of the premiership forever.

This point of view was exemplified by a supremely egotistical article in last weekend's Sunday Times by Michael Portillo, whose position in the 1995 Tory leadership crisis is seen by some (including himself) as analagous to Miliband's now.

Portillo wrote: "The premiership of the United Kingdom is almost within Miliband’s grasp, as it was for me in 1995. Unlike Cameron, Miliband could be prime minister without winning a general election, without even having to wait. He could be in No 10 by the end of June.

"If he does not grab it now, the opportunity may never recur. Brown will become leader, might lose the general election and condemn Labour to a decade in opposition. By which time Miliband will be a has-been, his best years spent fruitlessly harassing the Cameron government, for ever marked by his failure to seize the day, consigned to history as a vacillator. I can tell Miliband that this does not feel good."

Leaving aside the question of whether Portillo is over-estimating Miliband's current prospects, is he also over-estimating the strength of his own position back in that balmy summer of '95, forever etched on my memory as it was my first year in the Lobby?

I think he is. Over the years, a myth has grown up that if only Portillo had had the balls to challenge Major himself instead of letting John Redwood run as a stalking horse, he would have succeeded in dislodging the Prime Minister in the first ballot and gone on to defeat all-comers in the second.

It's a seductive theory, but it's not how I remember things. I recall a Tory Party that was split moreorless three ways - between those who wanted Michael Portillo to be Prime Minister, those who wanted Michael Heseltine to be, and those who couldn't care less who it was so long as it wasn't either of those two.

It followed that the only way either Heseltine or Portillo could have forced Major out was by working together, and I seem to recall one or two kites being flown to that effect. But the wily Major knew such a "dream ticket" was highly unlikely, which is why his "put up or shut up" gamble was always likely to come off.

The one time Portillo would undoubtedly have become Tory leader was in 1997 had he not lost his seat - but that is another political counterfactual.

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    Anonymous said...

    You mention the other reason why the comparison is totally without basis - Portillo lost his seat!

    He would have been very, very difficult to beat in 1997 had he actually held his (safe) seat.

    By 2001 the Party had changed - and his position within it had changed. The Party had gone even more rightwards and reactionary whilst Portillo had gone on his whole journey of discovery about centrist politics.

    The real reason Portillo was leader in niether 1997 or 2001 had nothing to do with "bottling it" in 1995 - but was because when he was the darling of the Tory right with centrist credibility (the best way to win the leadership) he wasn't a candidate because he wasn't in parliament.

    When he was in parliament in 2001 he was viewed with suspicion by the grass roots for his new found "wet"ness and also for having been seen as undermining Hague after his byelection in 1999 and return to the front bench.

    If we are looking for analogies here between Milliband and Portillo (why Milliband/Portillo? He's hardly comparable - he's not exactly a conference rabble rouser in the same way, he's more comparable to Blair as shadow Home sectretary - technocratic and centrist with a nice smile) then Milliband should be keeping his head down and knocking on doors in South Shields - making sure there's not "Were you up for Milliband?" moment.

    David Gladwin said...

    Or could it be that Portillo is well aware of the true state of things, and is hoping to goad Miliband into action in order to see him fail?

    If Portillo subscribes to the view that Brown will be unpopular, and that Miliband might succeed him, then it would seem in the Tory interest to see Miliband piss on his chips now.

    Richard Bailey said...

    If Miliband had an ounce of brain, he would write an article thanking Portillo for his support and then go on to encourage Portillo to stand as Conservative challenger for London Mayor. I'd love to see Portillo respond to that!!

    james higham said...

    I can't see how Portillo would have got in. He had an image in public but there was a certain amount of behind the scenes opposition - hence the stalking horse. You were there, Paul. Do you think he would have won?

    Paul Linford said...


    The short answer is no.

    The long answer is, there was a discussion between Portillo and Redwood before the election in which Redwood offered to stand aside in Portillo's favour if Portillo would agree to contest the first ballot. Portillo said he would only come in on the second ballot. Redwood said no deal, and the rest is history.

    A couterfactual history of the '95 leadership rests on what would have happened had Portillo answered this question differently. Had he stood rather than Redwood, would Portillo have knocked Major out in the first round, and if so, would he have then gone on to win the leadership, or would the centre and left of the party united around another candidate - probably Heseltine.

    On balance, I think the latter outcome would have been more likely. Even then, Portillo was deeply disliked within some sections of the party (Major famously called him a "bastard") and there would have been a fair amount of anger towards him for dethroning a sitting Prime Minister. Of course there was still residual anger towards Heseltine for having committed the same offence in 1990, but much of it had worn off by then and he had proved his qualities as a team player in Major's government.

    Tim J said...

    Yes but. The point of that ballot wasn't whether Redwood (or Portillo) would 'win' - it was whether Major would lose. Thatcher 'won' against Heseltine in 1990 after all.

    The last great service Archer did Major was to rush out of the count and delare Major to be 'safe'. If you accept - as I think to be the case - that Portillo would have done better than Redwood (Theresa Gorman? Tony von Marlov? gah) then it's very possible that Major would indeed have resigned. Whether we'd then have got Portillo or Heseltine, or Ken Clarke is open for debate.

    skipper said...

    I seem to recall a number of Tories saying that they did not mind MP so much but loathed the so-called 'Portillistas' who surrounded him. Recall also the Tebbitt intervention in 2001 which used his 'homosexual experience' revelation to stigmatise him and advance the claim of a 'normal family man': the charismatic IDS!