Benjamin Clayton is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was previously Chief of Staff at the British Government’s National Infrastructure Commission.
Charismatic and Oxbridge-educated, the man of destiny failed to win the Conservative Party’s leadership. Despite years of planning, relentless media attention and being the ostensible heir apparent, Tories in Parliament turned their backs on this politician-cum-celebrity and opted instead for a blander bet.
The date was the 17th July 2001, when Michael Portillo fell one vote short of Iain Duncan Smith, who went on to become leader, in the second ballot of Conservative MPs. Yet the date might equally have been the 30th June 2016, when Boris Johnson withdrew from the Conservative leadership contest after internal party machinations so brutal they made House of Cards look more like Postman Pat.
Johnson and Portillo are not close friends; the latter refused to endorse the former during the 2012 London mayoral election, disapproving of Johnson’s opposition to the expansion of Heathrow. Yet for those hoping to understand Johnson and his complex relationship with the Conservative Party, there are four insightful similarities with the former Shadow Chancellor turned train watcher.
First, both have always been more celebrity cult figureheads than grizzled political leaders. In his book, Tory Wars, Simon Walters observed of Portillo that he “attracted not political supporters, but cult followers who tend to act in extreme ways. At times, Portillo himself seemed oblivious to the effect he has on others.” Anyone who has seen first-hand the political sensation simply known as ‘Boris’ on the campaign trail will hear in that a familiar description.
Second, their friends, enemies, and colleagues fiercely debate whether the men are the epitome of loyalty or vessels of pure Machiavellianism. Portillo was almost certainly amongst those declared a ‘bastard’ by John Major, and later his relationship with then-leader William Hague was just as acrimonious as Blair and Brown’s. Similarly, alumni of the Cameron-Osborne years now roam Westminster spitting revenge against the man they accuse of betraying party and country by supporting the Leave campaign for no reason other than naked ambition. Both, however, also are the subject of numerous tales of enormous kindness.
Third, just as Portillo embarked on a journey of self-discovery after his brief eviction from parliament in 1997, so too has Johnson seemingly shifted his world-view. Portillo’s was broadly from right to left, becoming an advocate for ‘compassionate Conservatism’ and a moderating voice within the Shadow Cabinet. Johnson’s journey, however, has taken the opposite trajectory: from the liberal, metropolitan mayor of multicultural London to the champion of Brexit and, now in the Foreign Office, occasional defender of President Trump. Importantly, though, both managed to put backs up with these journeys: some of their original supporters felt betrayed and some of their new allies remain suspicious.
Finally, like the narrator Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, both are “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled” when it comes to the Conservative Party elite. Not of the British aristocracy, Portillo was registered as a Spanish citizen at the age of four and Johnson was born in Manhattan, granted both US and UK citizenship. Johnson apparently prefers giving speeches over Carlton Club dinners, and in May 2001 Portillo reflected that within the Conservative tribe “I seem to unite people against me in antagonism.”
Sixteen years on from his leadership failure, Michael Portillo has built an enjoyable and lucrative post-political career. Boris Johnson may well be content to ultimately do the same. If, however, he still covets the crown, he might do well to pick up the phone and learn from another’s mistakes. “Michael, hi, it’s Boris…”