As Michael Portillo approaches his 60th birthday this weekend, it’s easy to forget that this gentle, amiable TV presenter was not only the fierce young embodiment of a resurgent Thatcherite Right and also a prospective Prime Minister. But flashback to twenty years ago and it was a very different story…
With the possible exceptions of Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine, Portillo excited Tories more than any other post-Thatcher politician. The son of a left-wing refugee from the Spanish Civil War, Portillo was an unlikely Tory hero. Like William Hague, he was vulnerable to charges of teenaged political geekery. But it was Labour’s Harold Wilson, Portillo idolised, not Thatcher. He even had a picture of the four time election winner pinned inside his school locker. This only changed when he began experimenting with conservatism at university.
By the time of John Major’s surprise victory in 1992, Portillo’s Thatcherite credentials were impeccable. He had been close to the lady herself since the Seventies. Although not yet forty and as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, the most junior cabinet minister, Portillo began being touted as a possible successor to the already troubled Major. He was younger and healthier than Heseltine and more agreeably Eurosceptic than the other apparently most likely successor, the Chancellor, Ken Clarke.
Portillo was certainly a mischief-maker and a party conference rabble rouser even if his absurd “Who dares wins” speech was poorly received. A panel of disillusioned Tory voters on Newsnight who had never seen him before, universally backed him as exactly the sort of leader they would like to see. On Spitting Image, the puppet of Jeremy Paxman was endlessly distracted by Portillo’s “nice hair”. Malicious rumours flew elsewhere that he was having a gay affair with colleague Peter Lilley (untrue). Portillo was appointed Employment Secretary, a decision likened to “putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank” by some. Portillo was undoubtedly one of the Eurosceptic “bastards”, John Major complained that he could not sack, in comments that were accidentally caugh ton air. There seemed to be no stopping him.
That said, in 1995, when Major resigned, inviting opponents to “put up or shut up” and stand against him, Portillo dithered just as David Miliband did over whether to challenge Gordon Brown a decade or so later. Portillo came off badly – telephone wires were seen being installed at his potential campaign HQ, presumably as a preparatory measure in case Major fell suddenly. John Redwood, another Rightist, boosted his profile immeasurably by standing against Major and losing. But Redwood, unlike Portillo, had never stood a chance. Portillo was given the post of Defence Secretary, a tricky position to cause mischief in (Thatcher had appointed her nemesis, Heseltine to the same position in 1983). Portillo was surely sensible to wait until the Tories lost in 1996 or 1997(a defeat which was almost universally expected, by this point) and then stand for leader then?
Few had anticipated the Tories would lose quite as heavily as they did, however. The opinion polls were actually quite accurate but even Labour’s leaders, cautious after the 1992 shock, only expected a majority of about 40. They in fact achieved 179, the largest majority achieved by any party since the war.
Portillo certainly wasn’t expecting to lose his Enfield seat although had steeled himself by the time the result was aired on TV, a clip later voted one of the “best TV moments ever.” Unlike the disgraced former Heritage Secretary, David Mellor who had a public row with Referendum Party leader Sir James Goldsmith when he lost his seat in Putney, Portillo maintained an air of dignity. But Portillo’s defeat to Labour’s young Stephen Twigg was a total surprise. He had been widely expected to be elected as the next Tory leader. In a night of big Tory scalps (Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont) Portillo’s was the biggest. “Were you up for Portillo?” became the big question of the next day. Subsequent elections threatened to have “Portillo moments” – Peter Mandelson almost fell in 2005, Ed Balls came close in 2010. But none delivered. Blair, born in the same month as Portillo had proven to be his political nemesis.
The subsequent 1997 Tory leadership contest must have been especially galling for Portillo as had he been an MP, he would have surely won easily. Heseltine, Portillo’s main prospective rival, did not stand due to health concerns. Clarke, the most popular and well-known candidate was rejected by Tories as too pro-Europe. Lady Thatcher’s endorsement and the support of Tories went to a young right-winger, William Hague. At thirty-six, Hague was eight years younger than Portillo, little-known, inexperienced and unpopular. On the other hand, with such a huge Labour majority to overturn, the likelihood of anyone, even Portillo, leading the Tories to victory within a decade looked slim. The job was a poisoned chalice.
Had Portillo stayed where he was ideologically, he would probably have succeeded Hague as leader. He won a by-election in Alan Clark’s old rock solid Kensington and Chelsea seat in 1999 and quickly moved to Hague’s front bench. The Tories barely gained any ground in the 2001 General Election and Hague quit. Surely now was Portillo’s time?
But Portillo was no longer the right-winger he had once been. He had genuinely had a rethink during his time out of parliament and had re-positioned himself basically as a “compassionate conservative” similar to David Cameron today. This and revelations about homosexuality in his student days, harmed his standing with the notoriously homophobic Tory Party. In a notoriously eccentric decision, Tories plucked for Iain Duncan Smith over the more popular, experienced and well-known Portillo and Ken Clarke. Smith turned out to be the worst Opposition leader in living memory and was ditched in 2003. Not yet fifty, Portillo grew disillusioned, concentrating instead on a career in the media. He stood down in 2005 and is no longer a Tory Party member today.
Perhaps Portillo’s misfortune was simply timing. Portillo would probably never have overthrown Major in 1995 but had more Tories voted for Redwood, Major might have fallen and Portillo, slightly hampered by his youth (he was then only forty-two) might have succeeded him. But would he have wanted to be PM for just two years with New Labour’s ascent in 1997 so inevitable by that point anyway? He would surely have been blamed forever for the Tory defeat.
Alternatively, had Labour won by a smaller margin in 1997, Portillo would have maintained his seat and probably won the leadership. But the “what if…?” scenario does not help. Although a leading member of the government, the scale of the defeat was largely beyond Portillo’s control.
Portillo’s third chance in 2001 was effectively wrecked by his new moderate position. This was quite sincere and not a cynical tactic. Besides Portillo was not to know just how eccentric the Tories would be by 2001. A shallower politician would have become leader. It seems unlikely but not impossible he could have beaten Blair in 2005 anyway.
Perhaps he could have stayed on and won the leadership in 2005 instead of Cameron? Or maybe, had he become leader in 2001, he would have done well enough in 2005 to stay on as leader and then won in 2010? He would still have been two years’ younger than PM, Gordon Brown.
But one senses his heart was no longer in it. Ultimately, Portillo’s failure to become Prime Minister was not wholly down to ill-judgement. He was also unlucky.
Some people got very angry with the Lib Dems after the Coalition was formed in 2010. They felt the party had betrayed its progressive roots for a sniff of power.
This is very unfair. The inconclusive election result virtually guaranteed the Lib Dems a shot a role in the next government whatever happened. As Labour’s Andrew Adonis reveals, they had betrayed their progressive tradition long before then.
Nick Clegg and David Laws were, to all intents and purposes, Tories from the outset. Had they not been passionately pro-European at a time when (then as now) the Tories were tearing themselves to bits over the issue, they would doubtless have joined the Tories on entering politics in the Nineties.
Laws, the author of the main previous account of the Coalition talks, 22 Days in May has been candid about his admiration for George Osborne.
He also openly complained:
“Many Lib Dems were as disenfranchised with Labour as they had earlier been with the Conservatives….the endless centralising and micromanaging, the failure to embrace radical constitutional reform…and the lack of progress on social mobility and improving public services…”
Adonis is rightly astonished by Laws’ words. The Lib Dem seems to have forgotten the revival of the NHS, the thousands of new teachers and nurses, the introduction of devolution, reform of the House of Lords, civil partnerships, the introduction of the minimum wage. Labour in fact had much to be proud of during their thirteen years in office.
But Laws and Clegg weren’t interested in all that. They had no intention of fulfilling their promise to abolish student tuition fees either. They went through the charade of talks with Labour only to fatally undermine them by issuing bogus reports of “bad body language” from the Labour side, a charge which is impossible to verify. The Lib Dems in truth wanted to be with the Tories all along.
Some on the Labour side did their bit too, former cabinet ministers David Blunkett and John Reid each publicly doing their bit to make it harder for a Lib-Lab pact to work. As in 1950 and 1978, Labour did not fight hard enough to keep hold of the reins of power. Once they had relinquished it, it was easier for a new government to trash their record while in office.
But the Lib Dems are the real villains here. To add insult to injury, Clegg dealt his party a very poor hand in negotiations with the Tories, failing even to secure a department for itself.
The end result is that we effectively have an undiluted Tory Government committed to an austerity budget which isn’t working. This is compulsive reading, particularly for anyone contemplating a Coalition with the Lib Dems in 2015.
You have been warned.
No movie superhero has captured the popular imagination quite like Iron Man has. While ten years ago, only the keenest comic fan would have known who Iron Man was, today he is probably the best loved of all movie superheroes knocking out competition from the better known likes of Spiderman and Batman. Robert Downey Jr.’s hero was easily the best thing in last year’s Avengers Assemble, the biggest grossing film of last year.
The new film sees our hero looking strangely vulnerable, however. Prone to panic attacks after his close brush with death at the end of the Avengers film, Iron Man’s alter ego, billionaire playboy Tony Stark also his domestic life threatened by both an old flame (Rebecca Hall) and a new enemy, the sinister Mandarin, played by Sir Ben Kingsley (in the antithesis of the portrayal of Gandhi which made his name, thirty years ago).
Too often in the past, the third in a trilogy has marked a franchise’s death knell: witness the disappointing X –Men: The Last Stand (2006), Spider-Man 3 (2007) and Superman III (1983). But if anything this time round, it was Iron Man 2 (2010) which let audiences down. With a new director (Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black) this is both funny and dramatic enough to leave audiences thirsting for more.
Out: Now. Director: Shane Black. Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Sir Ben Kingsley, Jon Favreau, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce. Running time: 130 minutes.
In the days immediately following Lady Thatcher’s death in April, some observers might have been forgiven for thinking that they had good cause to doubt the choice of official biographer handpicked by the former Prime Minister to chronicle her life and career. Appearing on BBC’s Question Time and elsewhere, former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore made a number of bizarre pronouncements. Lady Thatcher’s economic policies were a direct result of her gender apparently. The Lady played a major role in freeing Nelson Mandela too, we learned. She was not as apathetic about Apartheid as was previously thought. And, most eccentric of all, apparently Lady Thatcher wasn’t a divisive figure. This is just a myth propagated by the “left wing” BBC! Strange indeed. As anyone who watched it will know, the BBC’s coverage of the days following Lady Thatcher’s death was reverential in the extreme. Surely the fact that the first woman Prime Minister was divisive is the one thing everyone can agree on?
This did not bode well for the first volume of Moore’s biography which takes us from Lady Thatcher’s humble birth in 1925 to her “finest hour”: victory in the 1982 Falklands conflict. In fact, although inevitably sympathetic to his subject (it would be surprising were he not), this is actually a triumph.
Perhaps no Prime Minister has had a stronger mythology structured around her life than Margaret Thatcher. Somehow the stories of Tony Blair being in a rock band at Oxford or Ted Heath’s days in the Second World War have never caught the public’s imagination in the same way that Margaret Roberts’ rise from Grantham grocer’s daughter to Downing Street has.
Moore succeeds in making this well-worn subject, covered expertly in the past by the late Hugo Young, John Campbell and by the Lady herself, remarkably fresh and readable. He even uncovers new information. He exposes the lie that Denis was her first boyfriend. There were several others before him.
Perhaps the most extraordinary fact is that the young Margaret as revealed through frequent teenage letters to her sister Muriel was remarkably ordinary. She is far more interested in fashion, films and making ends meet than in the underlying progress of the Second World War (rarely mentioned in her letters). She is a perfectly normal girl – a little bossy perhaps, but hardworking. She is not unlike the parody of Margaret Hilda Roberts written by Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend twenty years ago. She was sneered at for taking elocution lessons by her lower class contemporaries. Like Richard Nixon, she developed a slight resentment of the privileged leftists who often sneered at her too, in her case at Oxford.
Denis remained bedrock of support throughout her life after their marriage in 1950 and is entertaining in the book. “Oh God. They look like rabbits. Put them back!” was his reported response on first seeing his twin children, Carol and Mark.
Inevitably, as her ambition grew, Margaret grew distant from her sister, father and old friends. Although she held her father up as her political inspiration on entering Downing Street in 1979 stating that she “owed everything” to him, in reality, she had seen little of him in the years after she became an MP in 1959 and his death in 1970. This is understandable. She was a mother of two, a rising politician and a young woman in a hurry.
It is hard now to appreciate just how unlikely it seemed that Thatcher would ever be PM in the years before it happened. She herself had set herself the ambition of being the first woman Chancellor of the Exchequer as the summit of her ambition (interestingly, this remains the only one of the great offices of state which no woman has held even now). She only stood in 1975 when it became clear that now largely forgotten figures like Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph were not up to the challenge of displacing Edward Heath. “Heath will murder you,” predicted Denis. He was wrong.
Even as Opposition Leader, her prospects of power looked remote. Heath, still in his early sixties and more popular than Thatcher always seemed poised to make a comeback. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan remained more popular than her too right up until the 1979 election. Only the mistiming of the election that never was by Sunny Jim (a mistake Gordon Brown repeated twenty-nine years later) and the ensuing “Winter of Discontent” ensured her General Election victory in May 1979 just as the Falklands conflict ensured her resurrection in office three years later.
This is a long book- over 700 pages long – taking us from 1925 until 1982. Moore overstates Thatcher’s role in ending the Cold War (it is very hard to see how even without Thatcher it wouldn’t have ended as it did anyway) but happily, despite his pro-Tory leanings keeps it entertaining throughout. Unlike the Lady herself, it never really feels like it’s going on and on and on. Volume II is keenly awaited.
Winston Churchill received a State Funeral in January 1965 while Lady Thatcher received a Ceremonial one last month. With these precedents in mind, surely Tony Blair, on his death, should be considered for a Ceremonial Funeral himself?
It may seem a little premature to speculate about Tony Blair’s funeral arrangements in the month of his sixtieth birthday. But it certainly isn’t unreasonable. No, Blair cannot claim to have been Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. But in most respects, he was a more successful Prime Minister than Lady Thatcher was. Consider:
Popularity when in power: Blair and Thatcher both won three election victories each. Thatcher’s majorities were 43, 144 and 100. Blair’s were: 179, 167 and 66. Both leaders saw their share of the vote decline in each election but it is clear Blair’s majorities were larger on average. Blair was also notably more popular than Thatcher while in power if you look at opinion polls. Labour were rarely ever behind in the polls during the first half of Blair’s time in office (1997-2002) and were never very unpopular. Thatcher’s Tories were usually behind in the polls during her tenure (despite her election wins) and she was one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers on record in 1980-81 and 1990. Popularity isn’t everything, of course. However, the enduring nature of Labour’s poll lead under Blair, surely suggests he was doing something right.
Peace in Northern Ireland: The peace process (such as it was) got nowhere under Thatcher. Under Major, progress was made, the main achievement of his largely disastrous premiership. This stalled, however, largely because of Tory dependence on the Ulster Unionists for parliamentary support. Thanks to Blair and the late Mo Mowlam, the Good Friday Agreement has left a legacy of peace which has endured to this day. It is one of the greatest achievements of any British Prime Minister.
A decade of prosperity: admittedly, Blair inherited a better economy in 1997 than Thatcher did in 1979. Despite this, Thatcher’s policy of monetarism wrecked the UK economy in the early 80s and had it not been for North Sea oil, it might not have recovered. After an unsustainable boom, the economy was again on the slide when Thatcher left office in 1990. Blair deserves credit for overseeing a golden age of prosperity and growth for a full decade.
Crime: Crime more than doubled during the Thatcher years. It fell by over 40% under Blair and Brown. Even David Cameron admitted this, making a nonsense of his own “Broken Britain” claims in the 2010 election.
Homelessness: This also doubled under Thatcher, largely because of the catastrophic Care in the Community scheme. Homelessness fell under Blair.
The NHS undeniably suffered under Thatcher and undeniably benefitted from the extra expenditure of the Blair years. Customer satisfaction surveys confirm this.
Minimum wage, devolution, civil partnerships: The Blair Government oversaw all these changes in the face of Toy opposition. Unlike under Thatcher, the UK became a more tolerant, civilised place. And there was no New Labour equivalent to the Poll Tax.
Thatcher became eccentric in her later years in office referring to herself with the royal “we” (as in “We are a grandmother”) and publicly bullying her colleague, Geoffrey Howe. There are no such accounts of bad behaviour from Blair.
Of course, not everything about the Thatcher years was bad and everything about the Blair years good. On the issue of Iraq, Blair was at least as divisive as Thatcher. Thatcher achieved great victories in the South Atlantic. Reducing union power was undoubtedly necessary but too brutally done. Thatcher changed the UK more towards how she wanted it in her eleven and a half years than Blair did in his ten. Spin and rivalry with Gordon Brown too often hampered Blair.
However, surely the measure of a great leader is in what they achieved for their nation? Under Thatcher, crime rose, unemployment soared, the NHS declined, homelessness and rioting proliferated and society grew more selfish and violent. Under Blair, the opposite to all these things happened. And peace in Northern Ireland was achieved.
Ten great ideas to transform the world of TV, film and music…
A new series of 24 should be made in which Donald Sutherland plays Jack Bauer’s evil estranged father.
A new Bond film should be made in which an elderly Bond played by Sean Connery is called out of retirement for a final mission.
All theme tunes should include a version which includes the title amongst the lyrics in the manner of Anita Dobson’s Anyone Can Fall In Love (for EastEnders) if they do not already do so. Particularly: Star Wars, the 70s and 80s Superman films, Coronation Street and Last of the Summer Wine.
Why Do You Think You Are? A new documentary series which forces celebrities to justify their existence.
None of the Carry On films (with the possible exception of the first one Carry On Sergeant and the later Carry On Regardless) feature any characters saying the title of the film at any point. This is disappointing. Digital technology should be used to insert a character (perhaps Charles Hawtrey) saying the line at the end. This should occur even when Hawtrey is not actually in the film, regardless of whether the film is in colour or not or whether the film’s title makes grammatical sense (as with Carry On Follow That Camel or Carry On Again Doctor).
Some films and TV shows feature characters who have the same name as the actor playing them e.g. Jack Torrance (Nicholson) in The Shining, Rik (Mayall) in The Young Ones and Miranda (Hart). This should be made compulsory for one character in every production from now on as it will reduce time wasted by actors missing their cues.
The use of robot voices in songs, such as in ‘Something Good’ by the Utah Saints, once commonplace, have sadly become a rarity. All songs past and present should feature a robot voice at some point including instrumental classical pieces. Please sort this out.
Films in which samples of dialogue are used as the title are always rubbish and should be banned. Consider: Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, Slap Her She’s French, Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot and the obscure Dustin Hoffman film Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me? An exception should be made for Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (and all Carry On films: see above).
Doctors In The House: New sitcom in which all the surviving ex-Doctor Whos plus K9 share a house in London. Tom Baker is the zany one and is constantly frustrated when the other characters interrupt his attempts to narrate each episode. David Tennant is the charming likeable one. Christopher Eccleston is the moody, artistic one. Colin Baker is the pompous one. His glasses are occasionally knocked out of line rather like Captain Mainwaring’s. An old Tardis is used as the house phone which forms a central part of the set as does a dartboard with a photo of Matt Smith’s face attached to it. In episode one, a family of Daleks move in next door.
Not A Penny Moore… New sitcom about the Moore family. Demi is the cougar of the household, desperately competing with her younger sister Mandy. Roger plays the elderly granddad, wheelchair-bound and always with his cat. Alan plays the moody bearded uncle who rarely leaves his room. The late Sir Patrick Moore plays the eccentric great uncle perpetually spying on his neighbours through his telescope in the attic who he suspects of being German. He is constantly bothered by young children looking for cheats for Zelda III.