Will Tories not give a fig for a gay past?

 

When the recent history of the Conservative Party is written, it will no doubt include a considered section devoted to the fortunes of one Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo. Tracing his rightwing, rabble-rousing career through to May 1997 and his spectacular defeat at the hands of the Labour MP, Stephen Twigg, will be easy enough.

But what will be written about the route of his political career post-1997 and in particular the effect of events during the last few days when he admitted what many at Westminster had suspected for years - that he had "some homosexual experiences" - is much more difficult to predict.

Portillo, happily married since 1982 to City of London headhunter Carolyn Eadie, a fellow student from his days at Cambridge, has made himself as much the target of gay activists and dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives as the Europhiles in the Conservative Party when he sat in the House of Commons in the 1980s and 1990s.

His timely admission to a gay past (some have described it as a conversion to sexual tolerance) shows that since the loss of his Enfield Southgate seat he has lost none of the political acumen that served him so well in the past. Hesitating over this issue was no longer an option if he was to return to the front line of Conservative politics.

The Times interview carefully revealed what much of the political establishment had suspected but which Portillo had resolutely refused to acknowledge. And in doing so he wagered that the years of "vile" rumours, which included a juicy dinner party tale of an affair with his colleague Peter Lilley, would be quashed, allowing him a clear run at political office in the shape of Alan Clark's safe Kensington and Chelsea seat.

Portillo's tolerant conversion embodies everything the gay activist detests, in particular Peter Tatchell of the gay rights organisation OutRage. When Portillo was defence secretary he upheld the ban on gays in the military and during his political career he consistently voted against harmonising the age of consent for homosexuals.

The gay rights argument ran that with gay experiences in the past Portillo should have voted in favour of homosexuals on both counts, but the activists did not consider that one does not necessarily flow from the other.

Plain speaking and a return to traditional values was the line during the Tory party conference in 1993 but after Portillo's election defeat he spoke of tolerance and the possibility that Britain would one day elect a gay prime minister. Evidence of hypocrisy and homophobia, Tatchell said of his voting record. Defending the national interest, Portillo fired back.

When Portillo addressed the Tory conference in October 1997 he had spent the summer re-evaluating his beliefs, reinventing his public persona. Pro-hanging in the past, intolerant of single mothers and jingoistic in government, tolerance was now the key word.

"Tolerance is part of the Tory tradition," he said. "I believe that the Conservative Party in its quiet way is as capable as any other of comprehending the diversity of human nature."

In a radio interview a month later his comments reflected the broad acceptance of gays in society when he said: "It's amazing how quickly our attitudes change. I think political parties should be representative of the broad mass of the population."

By the time he gave his interview to the Times in July this year he was ready to offer a wider appreciation of the party he had once been at the heart of, a view that probably left his critics choking over the cornflakes: "I felt rather ill at ease having liberal views on social matters in a party which was generally rather illiberal. But . . . I don't think it's true that I joined in that illiberality."

The former party chairman, Chris Patten, was once described as the next Tory leader but three, but Portillo has fared better, with the mantle of the next leader but two. He has never disguised his ambition to return to Westminster, or dampened the ardour of his right-wing supporters who believe he will one day ride to their rescue when William Hague finally throws in the towel.

Moreover, Portillo could never be accused of punching above his weight. He is far too shrewd for that. Instead, he hinted in his column in the Scotsman newspaper that he was the victim of vulgar slurs.

He crafted a more caring image with sensitive documentaries on the plight of single mothers and celebrated his Spanish heritage - his father, Luis Gabriel Portillo, fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War - after years of ensuring his roots were kept firmly in the background.

At 46, Portillo is ready to embark on the next stage of a political career that is littered with high hurdles, not least the important matter of persuading the Conservative constituency association in Kensington and Chelsea that his gay past does not matter a fig.

If he clears that particular fence, the question for William Hague is what to do with Portillo once he is back at Westminster. Hague's critics will be watching him ever closer, waiting for the moment to pounce and push their man to the front of the race to take the party helm and tackle Labour head on over Europe.

Contrary to his public announcement that he would not stand in the Tory leadership race of 1995, it was subsequently revealed that Portillo had made plans to establish campaign headquarters in London. Hague would do well to remember that episode if he invites Portillo into the shadow cabinet ahead of the next general election.

Portillo may stand loyally next to his leader on the hustings but it is just as likely that he will be plotting behind his back.