I wrote this political counterfactual back in 2004, as the lead chapter in the ‘Prime Minister Portillo & Other Things That Never Happened’ book. It’s a piece of writing I’m still quite proud of. Perhaps I should stick to writing fiction!
“You do know you’re in trouble, Michael, don’t you?” whispered the particularly conspiratorial voice of Peter Mandelson as they left the BBC election night studios. “Well it’s certainly not going to be the majority I’m used to,” responded the outgoing Defence Secretary. As he got into his waiting car outside the TV Centre studios the last thing he wanted was to hear the excited babble of his loyal assistants as they argued with each other over the scale of the coming onslaught in the country. After all, it wasn’t exactly his fault, was it? For the first time Michael Portillo began to feel a sense of impending doom. Surely he couldn’t lose. Could he? After all, Enfield would usually return a donkey if it sported a blue rosette. His campaign team had berated him for not spending more time campaigning in the constituency, but just how could he manage that when he was expected up and down the country 24 hours a day? He wasn’t superman after all, no matter what his more zealous supporters thought.
It was already clear that Labour had won – and won big. Just how big was big, though? What kind of rump of a Conservative Parliamentary Party would be left? And would they be leadable? He was sure John Major would immediately step down, so now his moment had come. The crown had so nearly been his just two years earlier. Everything was in place, yet he, Michael Xavier Portillo, had hesitated. He who wields the sword rarely inherits the crown was the thought that had guided his decision. If Redwood wanted to risk it so be it, but he wasn’t being tainted as Major’s assassin. Sure, he’d talked to Redwood, and urged him to stand down in his favour if there was a second round, but Redwood was having none of it. Thank God he hadn’t got any further.
But Redwood was history. Portillo is the future. Or that’s the thought that was spinning in his mind as he got out of the car at Enfield Town Hall. He was immediately surrounded by the waiting media and a not inconsiderable throng of Labour Party supporters. “Mr Portillo, are you going to stand for the leadership?” shouted a blonde journalist he didn’t recognise from Sky News. “Fuck off Portillo” spat a callow youth. “Michael, have you considered the possibility of losing your seat?” shouted the man from ITN. Portillo ignored all of this and marched calmly into the town hall. He didn’t have long to wait before his agent spotted him. “Not looking good, Michael,” he whispered. “Twigg’s ahead in the bundles, but there’s two wards to go – both usually Ok for us.” So this is what it had come to. Thirteen years of service yet the voters might be giving him the bum’s rush. The bastards.
For the first time he considered what he would do if he lost. Not a pleasant thought. It wasn’t exactly as if he was qualified to do anything, having spent most of his working life as a researcher or as an MP. He thought he’d be bound to be taken on by one of the big City firms, but it wasn’t exactly a scintillating prospect for someone who in other circumstances wanted to stand for the leadership of the Conservative Party. He thought of the ignominies experienced by his friend Francis Maude when he lost his seat in 1992. He’d even had to take money from some God-awful lobbying company. Still, better to cross that bridge if and when it came to it, he thought.
Suddenly there was a commotion on the floor. Angry voices were hurling insults at each other. He thought he saw a punch being thrown but he couldn’t make out whose fist it was. But it was clear that the result was imminent. He steeled himself. The Labour candidate Stephen Twigg looked as nervous as he was feeling himself. Twigg had fought a good campaign. He looked the part – dashing, tall, well spoken. Should have been a Tory, thought Portillo, before he was rushed back to reality by the voice of the returning officer.
“I, being the returning officer for the constituency of Enfield Southgate do hereby give the result of the parliamentary election. Browne, Jeremy, Liberal Democrat, four thousand nine hundred and sixty six…”
The returning office was enjoying the moment and enunciating every syllable at inordinate length. For Christ’s sake get on with it, thought Portillo, as the returning officer made a valiant effort to make the next two candidates’ results last as long as he possibly could. And then he stiffened. “Portillo, Michael Denzil Xavier, Conservative, twenty thousand five hundred and seventy…”
Bloody Hell. The Liberals have halved their vote. I’m 8,000 down.
The returning officer took a deep breath. He puffed his chest out as far as he could – and it was quite a long way. “Twigg, Stephen, Labour, nineteen thousand one hundred and thirty seven. I hereby declare that Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo be duly elected.”
The characteristic Portillo smirk was back. The press had still got him to kick around for a bit longer.
The following 24 hours disappeared like a blur into Portillo’s memory. He had been truly shocked at the narrowness of his result, but he had clearly been luckier than most. Tory MPs had been losing like ninepins in a bowling alley. 191 seats. YeGods. Even Kinnock had got more seats than that. Rifkind, Olga Maitland, Seb Coe, Marcus Fox, David Mellor, all gone. Who’d want to lead this rump of a Party? Truth was, many would. He knew that. But one thing was for sure, John Major was a gonner.
Three weeks later
Funnily enough the leadership contest hadn’t been particularly bruising. Apart from Ann Widdecombe’s successful assault on Michael Howard, the whole contest had happened with barely a whimper. The truth was that the press were so obsessed by Tony Blair and his bright, shiny new administration that they paid the Tories little attention. Portillo had predicted that many would stand, for the leadership, if only to put a marker down for the future. Indeed, some acted with what Portillo considered to be unseemly haste. Ken Clarke couldn’t wait to throw his Fedora into the ring and announced his candidature only a few hours after the last results were in. Michael Heseltine finally had to rip up his famous envelope when heart problems ruled him out. Serves him right, thought the many people who would never forgive him for the events of November 1990.
Stephen Dorrell raised many a belly laugh when he announced a short-lived candidacy. His lamentable performance in the Major Cabinet certainly did for him in the eyes of his colleagues. William Hague and John Redwood were thought to be big threats. Some thought Peter Lilley would stand but he soon declared for Portillo and ended up running his campaign, fuelling the scurrilous rumours which had been circulating in low life magazines for years about the truth behind his friendship with Portillo.
But the contest itself had been a virtual walkover for Portillo. Michael Howard, Hague and Redwood all withdrew after the first round, leaving Clarke and Portillo to slug it out. Michael knew he would win. And so did everyone else. The Portillo era had begun.
His first task was to form a Shadow Cabinet. No easy task with only 190 colleagues to choose from. Ken Clarke had made it clear that if he wasn’t leader he didn’t want to do anything else. Portillo didn’t blame him for that. His rivals for the leadership all accepted posts, rather to his surprise. Pundits had expected Peter Lilley to be appointed Shadow Chancellor but instead he became Deputy Leader and Director of Policy Development.
Portillo made it clear that he wished to emulate the Thatcher Opposition in developing radical, exciting new policies, which could appeal to a new generation of voters who had never considered voting Tory. Michael Howard agreed to shadow the Foreign Office, while William Hague became Shadow Home Secretary. In a difficult interview with John Redwood, Portillo offered him the Shadow Chancellorship, but Redwood made clear he would only accept if he – and he alone – had control over economic policy. “He thinks he’s Gordon Brown,” thought Portillo. This was high stakes gambling for both men. There had been a deep rift between them following the 1995 leadership election when Redwood failed to unseat John Major. But both men knew that in these dark days for the party, they needed each other. And so it was that Redwood finally accepted the offer of the Shadow Chancellorship – and with no preconditions. Portillo had him by the balls – and he knew it.
The most popular appointment both in the press and among party workers was Gillian Shephard as Party Chairman. She made it clear from the start that she looked to modernise the party structure and change the way parliamentary candidates were selected. Her summer tour of the constituencies did much to heal the wounds of the election defeat. The party workers loved her.
Other eyecatching promotions included the pugnacious Alan Duncan to International Development and former Foreign Office Minister David Davis as Chief Whip. A few eyebrows were raised at the deeply ironic appointment of the Chingford MP and Maastricht rebel Iain Duncan Smith as a junior whip.
The first six months of his leadership were quiet. As Tony Blair’s administration found its feet so did the Opposition. Portillo’s performances at Prime Minister’s Questions were considered moderately impressive, with him winning more times than he lost. His budget response had been described by Peter Riddell in The Times as “masterful in the detailed analysis and impressive in political rhetoric”.
His attacks on the Prime Ministers integrity over the Bernie Ecclestone affair did much to knock the glossy shine off New Labour and dented people’s trust in Tony Blair in particular. Portillo’s off the cuff reaction of “absolute bollocks” to Blair’s “I’m a pretty straight kinda guy” semi apology for Ecclestone might not have amused the blue rinses of Tunbridge Wells, but it demonstrated that here was an Opposition leader who knew what Opposition was all about. Taste and decency were side issues. People wanted to know that you were up for the battle, and anyone who wasn’t would be disposed of.
A few months later he proved he meant what he said. In a speech to Yorkshire Conservatives the new rising star of the Party William Hague maintained that the Conservatives must be judicious in their opposition as the “country no longer wanted to hear from them for a good while”. He said the Party should apologise for what it got wrong during the Major years. “We should concede and move on”, he said. Portillo conceded that it should indeed be William Hague who should move on and summarily sacked him. The newspapers had a field day, depicting Portillo as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator. His 1995 conference speech had been littered with references to the SAS. This time, he dared to sack Hague and he won. He replaced him with Francis Maude.
In many ways this set the tone for the next two years. Portillo had demonstrated a toughness that few had realised was there. Any other member of his team who strayed out of line knew they would be for the chop.
The newly strengthened Conservative Research Department headed up by Peter Lilley and Danny Finkelstein was coming up with radical policies which even a sceptical media was admitting were eye-catching. Selling off housing association properties and introducing proportional representation for local government elections were proving popular on a local level, while plans to give teachers greater powers to discipline pupils put the teaching unions in a huge quandary.
Andrew Cooper and Michael Simmonds, the Party’s directors of campaigning were having considerable success with targeted direct mail campaigns in the Party’s top 100 marginal seats and the party had even begun recruiting hundreds of new members.
But it was in the CCO Press Office that the party was having problems. Portillo decided fairly early on that he needed a high profile press spokesman who could compete with Alastair Campbell on an equal footing. He broke with tradition and employed a firm of headhunters to identify the right person. After several months of discussion the former editor of the Sunday Express, Amanda Platell was appointed. Portillo liked a bit of glamour and Platell provided that in spades. She made an immediate impact, not just with the press, but with Portillo himself. She gradually began changing his appearance, persuading him to flatten a little, the trademark Portillo quiff. “It makes you look camp”, she said with typical Australian bluntness. If she hadn’t know better she would have sworn Portillo’s cheeks reddened.
Platell’s main contribution in her first six months was to persuade Lilley and Cooper that a campaign on honesty in politics should be launched. She felt that the perception of Tony Blair’s government being honest and straight was a lie which should be exposed. As part of the campaign Conservative MPs were urged to be open about their private lives. Shadow International Development Secretary Alan Duncan shocked many by coming out as a homosexual, something which those in the Westminster Village had known for years. His party leader praised him for his “courage, openness and honesty”. Some in his constituency were less forgiving. But an attempt to deselect him, which, due to some neat footwork by Amanda Platell, never made the papers, failed miserably after a ‘knocking heads together’ visit to Rutland & Melton by the thuggish chief whip David Davis.
Gradually Portillo began to make the press take notice of the party’s new style, approach and policies. Portillo admitted to himself that Hague had had a point when he said that no one wanted to hear from the party for a while, but rather than be defeatist, Portillo and his advisers decided they had to take the bull by the horns and make them take notice. Central Office made complaint after complaint about the time allocated to Labour and LibDem politicians and any example of media bias was ruthlessly exploited. A charm offensive with political editors and newspaper magnates helped the party make some headway and by the time the 1999 local elections and European elections came around even the most sceptical of political journalists was having to admit that maybe, just maybe, the Tories had turned the corner.
Since 1997 Portillo had instigated a full scale review of the Party’s approach towards Europe. He knew that the splits over Europe that had characterised the Major Government could not be allowed to continue. Major’s policy of ‘wait and see’ on the Euro had curiously been adopted by the Labour government, yet for the Conservatives it was no longer an option. Portillo’s aim was to develop a policy which was clearcut on the Euro and yet could not be interpreted as being small minded, xenophobic or little Englander. He therefore rang up his old mentor Lord Parkinson to ask him to chair a Commission on the Future of Europe. Their conclusions impressed Portillo and were to form the basis of party policy for the years ahead. The Euro was ruled out on principle on constitutional grounds, but the Party would press for enlargement of the EU and call a halt to the encroaching powers of the European Union. But the main change would be the language used in arguing the Party’s case over the European issue.
In local government things were beginning to turn around too. An aggressive campaign by the Party on Council tax rates had reaped local dividends and the Party’s councillors felt a degree of optimism they had not experienced since the late 1970s.
And the 1999 local election results justified that feeling. Portillo was cock a hoop. Despite a ludicrously low turnout the Conservatives had won a convincing victory. They were on their way back. And he, Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo, was convinced that it was only a matter of time before he and Carolyn would enter Number Ten.
And over the next two years everything Portillo did, said or thought, was geared towards that aim. He wasn’t a showman for nothing and the 2000 party conference was vital in providing the Party with a send off towards what everyone thought would be an election in the Spring of 2001.
The press had been warned to expect something special in the Leader’s speech. And for once no one leaked. The week had gone well. A raft of new policies had been announced, including on the spot fines for the possession of cannabis. Francis Maude had been worried this might be interpreted as decriminalisation so the policy was successfully spun by Amanda Platell as “zero tolerance on drugs”. John Redwood announced the proposed abolition of inheritance tax and a reversal of Gordon Brown’s dramatic increases in stamp duty on house purchases. He also promised to reverse Brown’s raid on pension funds which, he said, threatened a pensions crisis “the like of which we have never seen”.
But it was the leader’s speech everyone was waiting for. The first twenty minutes of the speech were laced with humour and cracks at Blair and his government but somehow no one was listening. They were all waiting for whatever dramatic announcement Portillo had to make. Platell had spun it as being a “deeply personal moment”. Speculation was rife – indeed it was threatening to get out of control. Finally the moment came.
Portillo paused for what seemed like an age. He continued:-
“My friends, for too long the Conservative Party has given the appearance of being split – divided. Over the last three years I have made it my business to lead from the front but also to listen to all parts of the party on all sorts of issues. I firmly believe the Party is now more united than it has been for years. United with a purpose. United in our march towards victory at the next election. I want to lead a party of all the talents. Full of people whose only aim is to do good. Good for our country, good for our people and good for our party. If we are to achieve our aim of despatching this sleazy, miserable Labour government to the dustbin of history I want the most powerful team at my disposal. That’s why I am delighted to announce today that Ken Clarke has agreed to rejoin the Shadow Cabinet. Ken Clarke, come on down!”
Music blasted out. Balloons fell from the ceiling, and Ken Clarke appeared at the back of the cavernous Bournemouth Conference Centre Hall, trotted down the stairs, gurgling with delight and waving to the assembled masses, most of whom were standing and clapping.
The symbolic message this sent out to the watching voters was clear and hardly needed to be articulated by the professional political pundits. “Masterstroke”and “A Conservative Coup” were just two of the headlines in the next day’s papers.
Everyone, it seemed, was happy. There was no doubt about it, Portillo was seen as a lucky politician. He had been perceived as a little too smug and pleased with himself, but his leadership of the Party had changed all that. He looked the part. He looked like a Prime Minister in waiting, which was exactly how he saw himself.
Meanwhile, the Blair Government lurched from crisis to crisis, some self inflicted, some outside their control.
And then came the foot and mouth crisis. Even their most ardent supporters felt it was handled badly from beginning to end. At one stage it even threatened to ensure that Tony Blair would have to delay calling an election. But the advice he received from the Ministry of Agriculture was that “no new cases are now expected”. Unfortunately, an incompetent official had failed to include the returns from both Wales and Cumbria in his prognosis. Two days after the beginning of the campaign dozens of new cases of foot and mouth appeared in the Brecon Beacons and Cumbria. A few days later more cases appeared in Northumberland and Somerset. The crisis was real and the Government was in total chaos.
Michael Portillo came into his own, calling for a State of National Emergency to be declared. He proposed sending in troops and announced an imaginative compensation scheme for the affected farmers. Tony Blair continue to fiddle, while the sheep continued to burn. Blair’s sole contribution was to suggest calling off the election. “In your dreams, Mr Blair,” said Portillo, as he continued to make good political capital out of a farming nightmare.
All other issues paled into insignificance, and on polling day the country exacted its revenge.
But a majority of more than 170 was not going to be easy to overcome, no matter how bad the government’s performance over foot and mouth had been. But seat after seat fell. At 12.03am Bob Dunn won back Dartford, 64th on the Tories’ target list. Malcolm Rifkind narrowly won back Edinburgh Pentlands and became one of five Tory MPs north of the border. But it wasn’t until 1.30am that it became clear that a Tory victory was a distinct possibility. The weathervane seat of Basildon fell and from then on the faces at Millbank became gloomier and gloomier.
At 4.30am Michael Portillo became Prime Minister. He had a majority of three seats, making serving a full term an almost impossible task. The pundits likened it to Harold Wilson’s narrow wins in 1964 and February 1974. A further election within a year looked a dead cert.
How had it happened? The pundits had been confounded but most of them agreed that Labour voters had stayed at home in their droves, while the Conservatives had managed to get their vote out. The turnout was pitiful – the lowest ever – but the Conservatives’ once powerful electoral machine had proved it had some life in it yet.
Having kissed hands at Buckingham Palace Prime Minister Portillo returned to the cheering throngs in Downing Street. They weren’t quite the seething crowds who had welcomed the Blair’s in 1997, but he enjoyed the moment nonetheless.
As he prepared to make his statement of intent on the doorstep of Number Ten – his Francis of Assisi moment – Amanda Platell peered out of one of the upstairs windows. She wondered what the future would hold in store for them all. At that very moment one of her junior staff came rushing into the room, almost breathless. “Amanda, I think you ought to take this call,” he said. “Who is it,” asked Platell? Mazeer Mahmood from the News of the World, came the reply. Platell experienced one of those moments when your stomach seems to hollow itself out. “What the fuck does he want?” muttered Platell, almost to herself. “Amanda, you really don’t want to know,” said the flunky. She took the phone.
“Hi Maz, Amanda here,” said Platell in her most sweet and innocent tone.
“Amanda, we’ve had six researchers who for the last six months have been looking at your leader’s private life going back to his time at Cambridge. And they’ve come up with some rather interesting conclusions. We’re running them on Sunday.”
And the rest, as they say, was history.