Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd.
It is the 7th June, 2001. Election day. The polls have just closed. As a junior functionary, I’m in Conservative Central Office, waiting for the results to come in. We don’t expect to win, but four years on from the landslide defeat of 1997, we hope to make progress.
By the next morning we’ve made a massive net gain of… a single seat. To quote a later Prime Minister, nothing has changed.
Except that everything is about to change. William Hague announces his resignation – triggering an extraordinary leadership contest.
It is assumed that Michael Portillo will win. After a second landslide defeat, the conventional wisdom is that a moderniser must lead the party. And so to the surprise of no one, he declares his candidacy on the 13th June.
The only uncertainty is whether anyone else will bother standing. One-by-one, the Shadow Cabinet declares for Portillo. The contest is turning into a coronation.
A similar process is taking place behind the scenes. All around me, I see the new regime replacing the old. Hague is still caretaker leader, but he’s confined himself to the leader’s office. Everywhere else in party HQ is Portillista territory. His supporters stride around like they already own the place.
Those of us who aren’t aboard the bandwagon have to watch our step. More than once, I’m asked who I support. “Oh, I’ll be voting for Michael,” I reply with a smile – the joke being that Michael Ancram, William Hague’s party chairman, looks like being the sole challenger.
Ann Widdecombe is another dissident – the chalk to Portillo’s cheese, or the nails scraping down his blackboard. She’s popular with the party membership, but with next to no support among MPs her campaign is over before it’s begun.
She doesn’t go quietly. On the 18th she summons the press to a council estate in Hoxton and delivers a short speech that is, in the truest sense of the word, prophetic:
“On estates like this all over the country, live huge numbers of people whom I have called the forgotten decents. They are people like us but with only a fraction of our resources and all they want to do is live normally, but instead their lives are made a daily hell by drugs, thuggery, intimidation and degradation of the environment.”
They’ve been let down by a “politically correct” establishment, she argues – adding there can be no “inclusive, one-nation society” unless politicians have the courage to stand up for ordinary people.
She makes her lack of confidence in Michael Portillo abundantly clear. In Central Office, the Portillistas watching the live coverage laugh. But I also see a few worried looks. Just for a moment they don’t seem so cocky.
A few days later, Portillo is unveiling his leadership manifesto at a smart London restaurant. There couldn’t be a bigger gulf between his chosen stage and the backdrop to Widdecombe’s swan song.
The contrast prefigures a much longer struggle within the Conservative Party: between those who think the way forward is to appeal to young, metropolitan professionals and those who believe there’s a coalition to be built beyond the trendies.
Obviously, in 2001, we’re not thinking about 2019. For a few us, there’s an inkling of future possibilities, but no more than that.
Nevertheless, things are starting to go wrong for the Portillo campaign. Though Widdecombe has bowed out, others are weighing in. Iain Duncan Smith steps forward as the candidate of the Right. Michael Ancram makes his challenge official – declaring that this is no time to match “star dust with star dust”. Two further candidates – David Davis (putting down a marker) and Ken Clarke (rocking up at the last minute) – make it a five-man race. The coronation is cancelled.
Having tried to create a sense of the inevitable, it’s difficult for Team Portillo manage down expectations. Going into the first MPs’ ballot on the 10th July, their candidate is still the clear favourite. So when he tops the vote, but not by an decisive margin, there’s a loss of momentum. The second ballot, two days later, is similarly inconclusive.
The pushiness of Portillo campaign begins to backfire. All over Westminster worms are turning. And so we come to the 17th July and the crucial third ballot. Central Office stops dead as the results are announced: Clarke, 59 votes; Duncan Smith, 54; Portillo, 53.
Someone (not me) shouts out “yes!” The Portillistas glare daggers. But it’s too late. Their man, the dead cert, has been knocked out by just one vote…
Historians used to believe that ‘Great Men’ steer the course of events. That theory gave way to a focus on the impersonal ‘forces of history’ — the mega-trends that mere individuals can do little about.
And yet it’s often the little things that make all the difference. All it took twenty years ago was for one MP to switch his or her vote from Portillo to IDS. Perhaps he or she had been spoken to rudely, or not spoken to at all. But, whatever the reason, it changed the future.
On one level, the Duncan Smith leadership was a disaster. Such was the chaos that the party turned to Michael Howard in desperation. Howard then fast-tracked David Cameron and George Osborne to the very top.
But on another level, the IDS years were foundational. Without him — and the involvement of Tim Montgomerie — there’d have been no ‘Easterhouse Conservatism’. Modernisation would have been for social liberals only. As it was, Duncan Smith and Montgomerie reconnected the party to its One Nation roots and furthermore they did it from the Eurosceptic Right. It was crucial and unifying development in the party’s ideological evolution.
But if the third ballot had gone the other way, then neither IDS nor Howard would have become leader. As for Ken Clarke, forget it – any Eurosceptic, however moderate, would have prevailed in the members’ ballot.
Therefore, in this scenario, it is not Howard who leads his party into the 2005 general election, but Michael Portillo – a more appealing prospect. He probably wouldn’t have won, but would have done well enough to have a second go in 2010.
Among other things, this ‘means no fast track for Dave and George. Instead they spend years as shadow cabinet ministers — enough time to prove themselves or come unstuck. Either way, Cameron doesn’t become Prime Minister in 2010. It’s therefore not his place to agree to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
If he’d been Prime Minister, would Portillo have made the same gamble? I doubt it. He was never an ‘essay crisis’ politician. Of course, he may not have made it to Number 10 at all. If he’d split the party by pushing modernisation in the wrong direction, Labour would have continued in power. But, again, that would have meant no referendum and therefore no Brexit.
Back in the real world, Portillo didn’t even become Leader of the Opposition. Instead, the honour fell to IDS, who paved the way for Howard, who paved the way for Cameron, who paved the way for Brexit, which paved the way for Boris – and the wholesale realignment of British politics.
And all it took was a single vote.