Michael Portillo’s long game is now reaching a critical phase, and one wonders whether he still has the stomach for it. There is something about his public persona that seems rather detached and distracted. He seems reluctant to talk, and gives away the absolute minimum about his thoughts and feelings.
This may simply be a politician’s ploy, based on the maxim “least said soonest mended”. Perhaps he now realises the value of keeping schtum, having been caught out so many times by wily journos who led him up the garden path only to dump him in the fish pond.
Mr Portillo realised that if he wanted to achieve his ambition of becoming leader of the Conservative Party, he would have to expose to public gaze that rather large skeleton rattling in his closet. Consequently he made his admission about youthful dalliances with homosexuality and hoped that that would be the end of it. He gambled that people would admire his honesty and take him to their hearts as they have done so many other gay people in public life who have done the brave thing.
The liberals in our society would gladly have done that. The Independent – that standard-bearer of everything that is fair and just – editorialised: “Mr Portillo has been congratulated on his openness about his past homosexuality, and rightly so, but only on the assumption that it might help lead to a situation in which such information was a matter of indifference… If the Conservative Party really is to reach out to a new bloc of voters, it must put prejudice and homophobic innuendo behind it. As the once-influential Bow Group says, it must tone down its support for that symbol of discrimination, Section 28. And no more should be heard from within the party’s ranks about Mr Portillo’s private life. Let the candidates for the Tory leadership be judged on their merits and their merits alone.”
Unfortunately, the Independent does not have much influence in Tory circles and Portillo’s case wasn’t helped much when news emerged that another former lover had died from Aids. Francois Kervan died in Madrid on 8th June. Another lover, Nigel Hart, died in 1999.
After he had made his admission, someone asked if he regretted it. “I was keen to put to rest the rumours that had been circulating about me… I don’t think it was a particularly big burden but I don’t have any regrets. The truth is a good thing” he said.
Ah yes, but now we come to the philosophical point: what is truth in this context?
Jaded hacks have been quick to notice the inconsistencies in Mr Portillo’s tale, and who can blame them for being cynical when the man himself gives the impression that he’s deliberately creating smokescreens. Such a manoeuvre never works with the press.
So, although Mr Portillo had hoped to lay the gay ghost by opening his closet door just a crack –giving the world a tantalising glimpse inside before slamming it shut again – he has actually ended up by fanning the flames of scepticism.
And the consequence is that THE question keeps being put, and Mr Portillo has to find new and elaborate ways of not answering it. Matthew D’Ancona in The Sunday Telegraph asked Portillo if he was certain that there was nothing else to come out about his gay past. “I’ve said that any number of times,” Portillo replied.
“But just for the record, can you restate your position,” persisted Mr D’Ancona. To this our hero retorted: “I will say it again. I do say it again. I have always spoken the truth.”
Then Mr D’Ancona asked if Mr Portillo thought, given the more tolerant age in which we live, that his opponents’ attempts to use homophobic innuendo against him might backfire, “The danger is that if I answer your question, I get led into what I don’t want to do,” was the enigmatic reply. What on earth can it all mean?
David Frost didn’t fare much better when he asked Mr Portillo if he had any homosexual experiences since his marriage in 1982 (Breakfast with Frost BBC1). “I have been completely straightforward about this” said the evasive shadow chancellor. “I don’t think any politician has been as straightforward as I have been. I have nothing to add to that.”
So was that yes or no?
And does it matter, really? An ICM poll conducted by The Daily Mail asked: “Michael Portillo has admitted to a gay past. If selected as party leader, how would this affect ordinary voters?” 37 per cent thought it would count against him. 1 per cent said it would count in his favour and 59 per cent thought it would make no difference.
The Times reported: “Other polls have shown that a majority of the public has a generally permissive attitude to personal lives. This is not necessarily a guide to the view of Conservative party members.”
In The Daily Telegraph, arch-Tory Tom Utley wrote: “I have a suspicion that his past will count against him with unsophisticated, non-metropolitan Tories… It will be jolly interesting to see.”
Indeed, the straw polls conducted by the papers among Tory voters – who will make the ultimate decision as to who will be their new leader – have shown an awful lot of intolerance. All this talk of reform in order to make the party more welcoming to minorities does not play well in the provinces. The Daily Telegraph sounded out opinion in the bar of the Cavendish Hotel in Keighley, West Yorkshire.
Paul Smith, a window cleaner, said: “I’ve voted Conservative all my life, but there’s one guy who if he got it I’d seriously change my vote. I don’t like his arrogance. Basically I don’t like him because he’s actually come out with it that he’s gay. I don’t like things like that. It’s against all moral standards in my eyes.”
Others said they didn’t mind Mr Portillo’s sexual history, but weren’t taken with his big lips.
The Times contacted the chairmen of 60 Conservative constituency parties and asked for opinions about his sexuality. More than a third thought the revelations would damage his chances.
John Kennedy of Beaconsfield replied: “Mr Portillo’s statement about his homosexuality did not help at all. It put a lot of people off… I am perfectly happy for people doing what they want behind closed doors but I don’t want them waving it about in public.”
Lady Fry of the Wellingborough association wanted to know whether there were any more skeletons to be brought out, as did Neil Stocks of Colchester. Bryan Hobson of Shipley opined: “There are certain people who did blanch at his statement and will never forgive him for it. But people have had much worse peccadillos than that.”
The overwhelming fear among those questioned, and one that Mr Portillo is doing nothing to allay, is that all the cards are not on the table.
Indeed, a small item in the “Scurra” gossip column in The Daily Mirror fuelled these fears. It said: “As he previously denied having any gay relationships since university, this appeared to mean that this phase of his life was behind him. So why is a Sunday newspaper spending so much effort in tracking down a 43-year old Surrey-based pilot believed to have been a close friend of the Tory leadership contender?”
You can be sure that the tabloids will be sparing no expense in their renewed effort to break through Mr Portillo’s enigmatic denials.
The Times thought that Michael Portillo was caught in a trap. Every time he talks about the Tories becoming more “inclusive” it is interpreted as “banging on about gays”.
“No one, though, said the same of John Major when he said the party needed to drop its censorious moral tone, show more tolerance and judge people less,” said the paper. “Was it because Major, in Lord Tebbit’s loaded description of Iain Duncan Smith, one of Portillo’s rivals, is a ‘normal family man with children’?”
Meanwhile in the Sunday Telegraph, Gyles Brandreth was exploring the long relationship between “the love that dare not speak its name” and the Conservative Party. “Many Conservatives, especially on the right of the party, are revolted by homosexuality,” he wrote. “And many Conservatives, especially on the right of the party, are homosexual.”
From then on, every idiotic stereotype pertaining to homosexuals was paraded for the pleasure of Sunday Telegraph readers. Naturally, in Brandreth’s world, gays are all Thatcher worshippers. Peter Just, of Politicos bookshop – himself a gay man – says: “We adore her. She’s wonderful. So camp, so gorgeous in her Aquascutum suits. We are grateful for her achievements when she was Prime Minister and now we just love the drama of her every appearance.”
According to Brandreth, gays are all naturally right-wing – look how many homosexuals there were in the Nazi party, he says. The theory seems to be accepted by an increasingly idiotic Ivan Massow. “It’s a matter of extremes,” the great sage-cum-insurance salesman is quoted as saying. “It’s camp. It’s over the top. And, of course, if you want to go to the far Right, there’s an element of Aryanism. I am right, aren’t I?”
Maybe about yourself, Ivan, but leave me out of it.