Convert with a lot of convincing yet to do

 

`We in the Conservative Party need to show that we are people like other people and that their concerns are ours. In our demeanour and our tone we must show that we are thoughtful, understanding and moderate." With those words, Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo launched his bid this week to become the next Tory leader, or as Private Eye would have it, the captain of the Titanic.

Whether Portillo has completely changed from the "hatchet-faced Thatch erite" many delighted in jeering when he lost his Enfield Southgate seat in the 1997 election, is, for some, a debatable point. Many Tories wonder if the man who said - on the steps of Portcullis House on Wednesday - that Tories must appeal to "those whose family origins are outside Britain" could be the same man who adored his Spanish father, Luis, yet once said foreigners cheated to pass exams.

His humiliating defeat in 1997, when he stood for a moment in stunned silence as the gay Labour candidate, Stephen Twigg, snatched his seat, saw Portillo embark on a journey of rediscovery. The jaunty quiff and the annoying smirk were toned down and the Portillo of old, who bristled with pride when Lady Thatcher told him "we brought you up, we expect great things of you", disappeared.

He went to Spain to rediscover his roots, made television documentaries about great train journeys and worked as a hospital porter as part of his research for a newspaper article. And when he returned to address the Conservative conference last year, as the newly elected MP for the safe seat of Kensington and Chelsea, gone was the right-wing tub-thumper and instead, Portillo spoke to delegates about respect for diverse lifestyles.

His supporters say the language and the mood music are right this time. "Before then, his emphasis was wrong, there was a lack of maturity," one of his supporters commented. He has left behind the xenophobic tone of his "island race" speech, which left ethnic minorities wondering if there would be a place for them in the modern Conservative Party. The "temperamentally half-Spanish" Portillo, who is known to be moody when he is depressed, may have once spoken about confining a free National Health Service to the poorest in society, but he now seems to have broken free of the restrictive social agenda he championed as Thatcher's anointed successor.

Now the language emphasises inclusivity and his speech is threaded through with a social liberalism embracing all races, personal lifestyles and genders with "moderation and understanding," but crucially for traditional Tories he hasn't ditched the core Eurosceptic message.

And that appeal to the voters is of course the key to Portillo's future success. When William Hague was party leader he reformed the process by which future leaders would be selected, and so Portillo could be the first leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party whose candidacy will have been decided by MPs and the 300,000 party members up and down the country.

The Eurosceptic message might appeal to the Tory heartlands, but the doubts over Portillo's past and his political identity remain. His conversion from the hard right of the party, voting against gays in the military, in favour of the death penalty and helping to introduce the much-hated poll tax, to the moderate wing of Conservatism, is a journey too far for some. For Tory traditionalists it seems the transformation from the right-wing radical who beat more than 200 candidates to stand in the Enfield Southgate constituency in 1984 to the man who admitted homosexual experiences during his days at Cambridge is just too difficult to take.

One such person is Tory peer Lord Tebbit. Never convinced, he said this week of Portillo's Thatcherite credentials that he soured the leadership campaign before it had even begun. The implication in his remark - that there were other candidates such as the "remarkably normal" family man Iain Duncan-Smith - was perfectly clear.

Portillo and his wife, Carolyn Eadie, who earns far more than her husband working as a recruitment consultant in the City of London, have been unable to have children as a result of a cancer operation she underwent some time ago. Friends of the couple say they are offended by the suggestion by some Tories that the absence of children in the Portillo household could count against him in the leadership race.

However, the admission of a gay past after years of speculation raises the question whether, apart from considerations of policy, Conservative voters (whose average age is 65 and rising) will choose Portillo as their leader. Many commentators believe the ladies and gentlemen of the Conservative associations will simply find it impossible. "Michael's popular among MPs, but don't forget the activists and the party members who now have votes too," said one "middle England" former Tory minister this week. "Mine don't like him. It's partly the gay thing, partly that they don't know who he is any more. The darling of the right or the left? He's a bit too smooth, a bit too metropolitan."

ONE shadow cabinet member has even gone so far as to wonder publicly whether there might be other revelations about Portillo's past that could "tumble out of the closet" at the worst possible time. "I have concerns about his past, not least because it could return to haunt us. I fear that the newspapers will be trawling through his past," the MP said.

Friends argue the urbane, intelligent Portillo, who discusses cinematography with film director Guy Ritchie and his wife, Madonna, over truffle risotto at The Ivy restaurant, has given this leadership bid serious thought. He dithered once before, when he decided against challenging John Major for the leadership in 1995. It cost him some political friends, not least John Redwood, who gave up his Cabinet post to challenge Major, partly on the understanding that Portillo would eventually do the same. "If the moment comes," a friend is claimed to have told him a few weeks ago, "you've got to stop acting like Hamlet. You've got to start behaving like a leader, you can't keep agonising."

But this time Portillo is clear in his mind that he has the strength of character, and the support of political allies, to put his political convictions to the test. He is said, in the words of one supporter, "to be up for a fight".

Setting the Conservative Party back on course for victory is a challenge of supreme proportions for Portillo. But in the words of the former London mayoral candidate Steven Norris, the choice for Conservatives is clear: "A combination of constructive and intelligent Euroscepticism with a genuine social liberalism is likely to be infinitely more attractive than the offering we put before people on June 7th."