Election defeat saved me from running as leader for ‘rump’ Conservatives, says Michael Portillo


Michael Portillo says losing his parliamentary seat when Tony Blair’s Labour swept to power in 1997 saved him from having to run for the leadership of the Conservatives.

Speaking at Benenden School last night, the former Tory Cabinet member who was repeatedly seen as a leadership hopeful in the 1990s and early 2000s, also tipped Theresa May to be replaced as Prime Minister imminently over the Brexit deal.

Of the infamous night in 1997 when he was defeated in his Enfield Southgate seat, Mr Portillo said: “A lthough it was a humiliation what I really enjoyed was being in government and it was very, very clear that we weren’t going to be in government.

“So losing my seat was just an extra punishment but it did relieve me of having to run for the leadership of the Conservative Party – not a prospect I relished because the party was reduced to a small rump and was going to be very irrelevant.”

He later returned to Parliament and stood for the Conservative leadership in the race eventually won by Iain Duncan Smith. Asked if he would have been a better leader, Mr Portillo said no and added: “ Iain Duncan Smith was different from me in some ways because he didn’t see at the time a need to move the Conservative Party to the centre ground, which I did. But he was got rid of after two years. I think the same would have happened to me for slightly different reasons but nevertheless I think my fate would have been the same.”

Mr Portillo was speaking in an interview at Benenden ahead of giving a talk in the School’s packed Theatre to pupils, parents and staff.

During his lecture he spoke about his time in politics, his subsequent media career and his love of history, which he has pursued in his hit television series Great British Railway Journeys.

He urged any pupils in the audience considering a Politics career to have another career to fall back on, saying that most political careers ended in “failure and tears”, and said that you never knew in life what was around the corner. By way of example, he said he was approached for Great British Railway Journeys a whole ten years after making a one-off documentary in which he revisited his father’s Spanish home town. He said: “All through life we are dropping little acorns as we go. You have no idea which of these is going to flourish.”

Headmistress Samantha Price said: “Michael Portillo gave us a candid, insightful, amusing and at times moving account of his life in politics and the media. The pupils greatly appreciated his candour and his deep knowledge of history, and his lecture will live long in the memory.”