Michael Portillo has undermined each of the last four Tory leaders so it is no surprise that he has chosen this time – a time of great testing for David Cameron – to undermine a fifth. I do not deny that there are some important points in today’s article from 2001’s unsuccessful party leadership candidate but the balance of the piece is predictably destructive. Mr Portillo also – unwittingly – reveals the central flaws in his version of the modernisation project.
I respond to some key extracts of his Sunday Times article below:
"The Conservative strategy for defeating Gordon Brown lies in tatters even before he has moved from 11 to 10 Downing Street. The Tories recognised that Tony Blair is unbeatable. But Brown, they thought, would be different. He would be deeply uncharismatic in contrast to both his predecessor and David Cameron and he would hand the election to his opponents by veering to the left. Conservative high command is the victim of wishful thinking. It was never likely that Brown would shift from the centre ground."
This is actually Michael Portillo’s strongest point in his whole article. Gordon Brown is unlikely to veer sharply to the left but it is true that voters see the Chancellor as decidely more left-wing than Tony Blair. Last Monday’s YouGov/ Channel 4 poll put Brown slightly to the left of his party and 30% to the left of a centrist Tony Blair. I believe that Tory strategists should be focusing on Brown’s incompetence.
"There is no doubt that Cameron has more charisma than Brown, but in recent opinion polls the chancellor leaves the Tory leader far behind in comparisons of “strength”. It is just possible that Britain will elect a candidate on the grounds that he is more charming despite being much weaker, but the Tories should not count on it."
Agree with Mr Portillo on this point and on Monday night I noted that Labour strategy is likely to portray Mr Cameron as weak and lightweight. In today’s Observer a source compares Cameron’n’Osborne to a boy band. Expect more of that.
"Less predictable was Brown’s offer of positions in the
government to the Liberal Democrats. For the Tories, William Hague did
his best to portray their refusal of the invitation as a humiliating
snub for Brown. More accurately, it plunged Sir Menzies Campbell into a
fresh crisis over his leadership, with Liberal Democrats accusing him
of vacillation and clumsiness. It unnerved Labour MPs, forced to
recognise Brown’s untrammelled authority to hire and fire without
limiting himself to one party. It sent shivers through the Tories as
well. They were reminded that Brown and Campbell are friends and even
travel together to and from their constituencies in Fife. It is easy to
imagine that the two could do a deal if Labour fails to get an overall
majority in 2010 (assuming that last week’s events have not already
destroyed Campbell). The prospect of a Conservative government slipped
a notch further away."
This is contradictory. Did Mr Brown make his offer(s) to plunge
Ming into crisis or does he want Ming as a coalition partner after the
next election? Mr Portillo clearly has no idea.
"Cameron’s wide lead was the only thing that kept the diehards
quiet for a while. Now they can argue that the modernisation project is
That is in danger of being true. My guess is that at least 50% of
members will support Cameron however he performs (fewer MPs will).
Roughly 25% are ideologically opposed to his project and another 25% or
so are supportive as long as he delivers opinion poll progress.
"The leadership has made mistakes, such as attacking grammar
schools head-on and announcing the reintroduction of museum charges.
But Tory MPs and the party rank-and-file have performed far worse.
Their undisciplined revolt against Cameron’s modernisation project has
confirmed that the party is divided. It reinforces the public’s view
that even if Cameron is different, the party is unchanged."
Wait a minute! Do you remember your article, Mr Portillo, that called for blood on the carpet?
You urged "brutality". You said that this would silence Cameron’s
critics. It was only ever going to make the party look divided! The
modernisers have always foolishly believed that a big row – a Caluse IV
moment etc – would confirm in the public’s
mind that the party is changing. Now that over-zealous modernisation
has made the party look divided, Portillo et al are protesting. The
party was loyal and quiet for much of Project Cameron’s modernisation
but grammarsgate and the talk of "delusional" behaviour was one step
too far… but a lot of us now want to put that episode behind us.
"Lamentably, the signs are that Cameron is now caving in to Tory
pressure. Hague and David Davis were wheeled out to reassure the
should have been in operation many months ago. Hague, Davis and Fox
have been silent for too long. Their recent interventions have not
been undermining of the leadership. They are now (belatedly)
communicating to core supporters that they are largely content with
Project Cameron and explaining why. Hague and Fox backed Cameron on
grammars. In yesterday’s Telegraph Davis explained the importance of
the ‘detoxification’ process and backed Cameron’s environmentalism (see
Iain Dale’s commentary on Davis’ intervention).
"Cameron knows that reassuring the party and widening its electoral support are opposites."
Here Portillo exposes the central problem of the Tory
modernisers. To use his own expression, Portillo just ‘does not get
it’. Where Project Cameron has become vulnerable is that it has been a
programme of change and substitution rather than of broadening and
deepening. It has been seen to downplay tradational Tory policies on
crime, Europe and immigration even though those policies were and are
popular. It has been right to emphasise social justice and green
issues but this should have been done alongside faithfulness to the
core messages. There is no contradiction between wanting tough border
controls and having a practical heart for the hungry of Africa. There
is no contradiction between wanting to build more prisons and mending
the broken families that are a leading cause of crime. I propose the
following golden rule for David Cameron to follow from now on: SPEND AS
MUCH TIME TALKING ABOUT TRADITIONAL ISSUES AS BREADTH ISSUES.
"Hague’s one apparent enthusiasm in foreign policy (on which he
is the party spokesman) is Europe-bashing. Depressingly, the signs are
that he is to be unleashed again as the Tories cry tallyho against the
What nonsense. I’d like William to be a much more energetic Shadow
Foreign Secretary (I fear he is too distracted by his business
interests) but I think he has learnt from the over-emphasis on ‘keeping
the pound’ in 2001. His time as SFS has been spent on a wide range of
issues including a new focus on India, opposing human trafficking and
he is soon to give a big speech on the Middle East. Over the last 48
hours William Hague’s statements on the draft EU Treaty have been
strong but not OTT. There has been no "Europe-bashing". The man stuck
in 2001 is Michael ‘Hague-bashing’ Portillo. He clearly hasn’t got
over his disagreements with William Hague from that time.
have always doubted that the Conservatives could win the next election.
Now the question in my mind is different: can the Tories ever win
With those words Mr Portillo concludes his piece. Thanks Michael.
Very helpful. Who needs enemies when the party has friends like you?