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A week may be a long time in politics — a month might prove to be a lifetime for Michael Portillo. Events are moving so fast that by the time you read this, Mr Portillo might already be yesterday’s man.
Alternatively, he may have taken the next step on his carefully crafted, long-term plan to take up residence at 10 Downing Street.
In the meantime, as you may have noticed, Mr Portillo has thrown the whole future direction of British politics into confusion with his admission of “homosexual experiences as a young person”. Newspaper commentators hardly know what to make of it.
Does it mean the end for Ann Widdecombe as a possible new Tory leader? Does it mean the end for William Hague as present Tory leader? Does it, in fact, herald the revival of the Conservative Party and, therefore, the premature end of the Blair regime?
More importantly, does it at last herald the dawn of a new attitude to homosexuality in British politics? Or is it just another dose of the temporary tolerance we’ve seen so much of in recent months? (Let’s face it, if, as so many of the papers assure us, it isn’t an issue any more, why are they devoting so many hectares to it?)
All these fascinating questions have been exhaustively explored by the press following Mr Portillo’s now legendary, oh-so-carefully worded interview with The Times. When asked by interviewer Ginny Dougary whether he had had “gay flings” while at Cambridge, he replied, after some hesitation: “I will say what I want to say. I had some homosexual experiences as a young person.”
Following the interview, journalists quizzed Mr Portillo about what his ambiguous statements actually meant. An ITN reporter asked: “What are you actually admitting to when you say there had been rumours for many years?” Portillo replied: “Well, I want to make it perfectly clear that all the time I’ve been in public life there has been nothing of this sort whatsoever. When the interviewer asked me if there had been any experiences at university, I said yes.” ITN: “That is something you have not continued with?” Portillo: “That is exactly right.”
Then a Sky News reporter asked him: “When you say relationships at university, are we talking about one encounter or several?”
Portillo: “I’m not prepared to go into that. A few experiences.”
Sky: “What about your time since university?”
Portillo: “During my time in public life, there has been no such experience or activity.
Sky: And between leaving university and going into public life?
Portillo: “I am not going to go into that.”
The Daily Mail’s reaction to this evasiveness was: “His refusal to answer is certain to fuel speculation about the period between leaving Cambridge in 1975 and being elected MP for Enfield Southgate in 1984.”
Yes, indeed. Mr Portillo’s self-outing (and everyone suspected it was only half a tale) resulted in the usual Fleet Street scrum to be first to prove him a liar. Tens of thousands of pounds and hundreds of journalistic hours were expended over the days following publication of the interview, in trying to track down Michael’s lovers. Even I received calls from desperate Fleet Street hacks looking for leads.
First with the honours was The Mail on Sunday, which unearthed Nigel Hart, one-time information officer for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. He told the paper that he had had an intermittent eight-year affair with Portillo. Well, not so much an affair as a kind of friendship with the occasional sexual episode thrown in.
More shocking is Portillo’s alleged comment during a car journey with his wife Carolyn Eades and Nigel Hart: “The first time I slept with you, Nigel, was the day after I slept with Carolyn for the first time.” Boorish, tactless and insensitive or what?
Mr Hart’s contribution to the debate tells us two things: firstly, that Mr Portillo was having homosexual encounters well after he left university, and long after he could be convincingly described as a “young person” in the way that Mr Portillo appears to want us to understand the term.
Nigel Hart says: “We are not talking about teenage fumblings or childish ‘experiments’. Portillo was having sex with me in the second half of his twenties.” Secondly, when Hart asked Portillo if he preferred men or women, he says Portillo replied: “I like them both.” And from this we must conclude that Mr Portillo is bisexual, or at least not completely heterosexual.
We will leave aside for the moment the insulting way that Mr Portillo describes his past liaisons (“these vile rumours”), and the impression he tries to give that homosexuality is OK for a “young person” (him, not others), but it’s disgraceful once you’re grown up. We will, instead, try to discover whether Portillo’s progress will be impeded by these events.
According to opinion polls just after the interview, all is well for Mr Portillo with the electorate — so long as everything that he has said so far is true and complete. The Mail on Sunday reported: “The day a gay Prime Minister crosses the threshold of 10 Downing Street may not be far away. The remarkable finding that seven out of ten people would have no objection to someone with a gay past occupying the highest public office in the land comes in the first opinion poll to be conducted since Michael Portillo revealed he had homosexual relationships… A similar number say they would even accept an openly homosexual Prime Minister.” Only the over-55’s demurred.
The Sun conducted one of its you-the-jury phone-ins and was surprised to find its readers indifferent to the issue. It recorded the lowest response since it started these polls in 1990. Only 392 callers thought Portillo’s revelations would damage his career, while 658 said they wouldn’t. To give some idea of the level of indifference, a recent phone-in on the euro generated 130,000 calls.
But, of course, the Fleet Street muckrakers are working overtime, and there is a strong suspicion that there is still plenty for them to find. Nigel Hart went on to write in The Guardian that he thought that Mr Portillo’s admissions had fallen short of completeness. There were also dark mutterings in other parts of the press about other lovers waiting in the wings — a theatre director, an ex-school chum, and even, according to the Daily Mail’s Brutus column, someone called “Bill”.
To take up a gambling metaphor, Mr Portillo is playing for high stakes, and is backing a rank outsider if he thinks he can get away with giving an incomplete picture of his past indiscretions. I suppose he is operating on the Nick Brown principle —you will remember that the agriculture minister pre-empted a tabloid outing by doing it himself the day before the revelations could be published.
Unfortunately, many people think it’s going to end up more a Ron Davies episode. Ron’s half-arsed attempts to run rings round the press with half-truths, dissemblings and outright lies did for him completely. Michael Portillo is running the same risk if he’s attempting the same deception. “A moment of madness” is the phrase that will follow Ron Davies to his grave, just like Clinton will have etched on his tombstone, “I have not had sexual relations with that women, Miss Lewinsky”.
The Observer also questioned the impression being cultivated by Mr Portillo that he was somehow no longer gay. It consulted several psychiatrists and “experts” to find out whether “a man can have gay love affairs and then turn straight”.
Professor Alan Sinfield, author of Gay and After said: “I know many gay men who have done what he has done, and they almost always relapse — so to speak. If you like men and go to bed with men, you tend to remain interested in men. We ought to take seriously that he believes in Tory doctrine — that traditional families are best and gays should not serve in the military — but repressed sexual desires tend to return at unguarded moments.” Dr Glen Wilson said that he thought ‘temporary’ homosexuality in the teens and twenties “is extremely rare”.
But, of course, the other side of the coin could be that there is nothing else of any consequence to be unearthed, and that Michael will pass the finishing post unscathed. In that case, the sky’s the limit. After all, if you’d said 30 years ago that the first woman Prime Minister would be a Tory, you’d have been laughed out of court. So who’s to say that the first out gay (or, at least, not completely heterosexual) Prime Minister won’t also be a Tory?
Now we come to the tricky question of Mr Portillo’s supposed new caring, compassionate image. To many he will always be (in John Major’s memorable phrase) a “bastard” of the kind that only right-wing Tories can be. He did everything he could to retard the progress of gay rights. He voted against equalising the age of consent (even though he himself was happy to have gay sex at 19, when the age of consent was 21).
He thought it was OK to kick gay people out of the forces while he himself enjoyed the privileges of being Minister of Defence. He was happy to go along with Mrs Thatcher’s introduction of Section 28. He spoke of “gay shame not gay pride”. So, if he really has suddenly become a social liberal, he has a lot of catching up to do. So far he has given no indication that he would act in any way differently should he be returned to Parliament.
In fact, we are left wondering if he has really left his hard-line and intolerant ways in the past along with his homosexuality.
If Mr Portillo beats the odds and does not come the cropper he so richly deserves, there is one person who will be particularly unhappy, perhaps even devastated — Ann Widdecombe. Over the summer, while William Hague was away on his hols, Ms Widdecombe kept the papers amused with her antics, and was so successful in her self-promotion that people started to talk about her as a serious rival for the Tory leadership. She was the one who could keep the Tory faithful faithful. The one with her finger on the Conservative pulse. She was going to give William Hague a run for his money.
It was easy to get carried away with that speculation at the time, but it all seems a bit silly now. Who could possibly take the Virgin Ann seriously, with her “gravity-defying architecture” (Andrew Rawnsley, Observer), cracked contralto and repulsive religiosity?
It might have been entertaining to have had her as leader of the Tories. After all, the BBC can’t produce a sitcom to amuse us, so it would have been St Doris of Karloff’s duty to make the nation laugh. And although she doesn’t believe in euthanasia, she could have finally put the Tory party out of its misery by leading it to a farcical end.
All the same, we are likely to see plenty of the hilarious Ann at the Tory Party conference in Blackpool this month, where, as Andrew Pierce in The Times said, she will “make the best use of bosom as a theatrical prop since Barbara Windsor”. Who knows what she will do this year, after her acclaimed one-woman show last year. Maybe she will repeat what she wrote in The Salisbury Review, that while Tories are correct to respect the right of people to be homosexual, they are morally bound to oppose an equal age of consent. This is a direct rebuke to William Hague, who was one of the few Tories to vote for 16 last time around.
A lot of hats are going in the ring, but if Michael Portillo survives, the result might be a foregone conclusion.
However, big-hearted as ever, Ann went on GMTV to say: “My view is that Michael Portillo is an extremely able ex-colleague. I look forward to the occasion when he becomes a colleague again.”
She was then no doubt carted off to the nearest dentist to have her teeth ungritted.