Michael Portillo

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The Right Honourable
Michael Portillo
Michael Portillo by Regents College cropped.jpg
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
1 February 2000 – 18 September 2001
Leader William Hague
Preceded by Francis Maude
Succeeded by Michael Howard
Secretary of State for Defence
In office
5 July 1995 – 2 May 1997
Prime Minister John Major
Preceded by Malcolm Rifkind
Succeeded by George Robertson
Secretary of State for Employment
In office
20 July 1994 – 5 July 1995
Prime Minister John Major
Preceded by David Hunt
Succeeded by Gillian Shephard (Education and Employment)
Chief Secretary to the Treasury
In office
11 April 1992 – 20 July 1994
Prime Minister John Major
Preceded by David Mellor
Succeeded by Jonathan Aitken
Member of Parliament
for Kensington and Chelsea
In office
25 November 1999 – 5 May 2005
Preceded by Alan Clark
Succeeded by Malcolm Rifkind
Member of Parliament
for Enfield Southgate
In office
13 December 1984 – 1 May 1997
Preceded by Anthony Berry
Succeeded by Stephen Twigg
Personal details
Born Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo
(1953-05-26) 26 May 1953 (age 61)
Bushey, Hertfordshire, England, UK
Political party None (formerly Conservative)
Spouse(s) Carolyn Eadie (1982–present)
Alma mater Peterhouse, Cambridge
Website www.michaelportillo.co.uk

Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo (born 26 May 1953) is a British journalist, broadcaster, and former Conservative Party politician and Cabinet Minister. Portillo was first elected to the House of Commons in a by-election in 1984; a strong admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and a Eurosceptic, Portillo served as a junior minister under both Thatcher and John Major, before entering the cabinet in 1992. Seen as a likely challenger to Major during the 1995 Conservative leadership election, he stayed loyal. As Defence Secretary, he pressed for a purist Thatcherite course of "clear blue water", separating the policies of the Conservatives from Labour.

Portillo unexpectedly lost his very safe Enfield Southgate seat at the 1997 general election. This coined the expression "Portillo moment"; political commentators believed he would have been elected Conservative leader had he retained it. Returning to the Commons after being given the Conservative candidacy in the 1999 by-election in Kensington and Chelsea (an even safer seat), Portillo rejoined the front bench as Shadow Chancellor, although his relationship with Conservative Leader William Hague was strained. Standing for the leadership of the party in 2001, Portillo came a narrow third place behind Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke. Portillo retired from the Commons at the 2005 general election, and has since pursued his media interests, presenting a wide range of television and radio programmes.

Early life and career[edit]

Portillo was born in Bushey, Hertfordshire, to an exiled Spanish republican father, Luis Gabriel Portillo (1907–1993).[1] and a Scottish mother, Cora (née Blyth) (1919-2014), whose father, John Blyth, was a prosperous linen mill owner from Kirkcaldy.[2][3] Portillo was also registered as a Spanish citizen at the age of 4, and, in accordance with Spanish naming customs, his Spanish passport names him as Miguel Portillo Blyth.[4] An early brush with fame came in 1961 when Portillo starred in a television advertisement for Ribena, a blackcurrant cordial drink. He was educated at Stanburn Primary School in Stanmore, Greater London, and Harrow County School for Boys[5] and then won a scholarship to Peterhouse, Cambridge.[6]

Portillo graduated in 1975 with a first-class degree in history, and after a brief stint with Ocean Transport and Trading Co., a freight firm, he joined the Conservative Research Department in 1976. Following the Conservative victory in 1979 he became a government adviser. He left to work for Kerr-McGee Oil from 1981–1983 and fought his first, unsuccessful, election in the 1983 general election, in the Labour-held seat of Birmingham Perry Barr, losing to Jeff Rooker.

Portillo has been married to Carolyn Eadie since 1982.[7]

Member of Parliament[edit]

Portillo returned to advisory work for the government and in December 1984 he stood for and won the Enfield Southgate by-election following the murder of the incumbent, Sir Anthony Berry, in the bombing by the IRA of the Grand Hotel in Brighton.

Portillo retained the Enfield Southgate seat until 1997. Initially he was a Parliamentary Private Secretary to John Moore and then an assistant whip. In 1987 he was made under secretary for social security, in 1988 he was given his first ministerial post as Minister of State for Transport. He has claimed that "saving the Settle to Carlisle railway was his greatest achievement in politics."[8]

He then held the local government portfolio (1990), arguing in favour of the ultimately highly unpopular Community Charge system (popularly known as Poll Tax). He demonstrated a consistently right-of-centre line (exemplified by his insistence, in a well-publicised speech, of placing 'clear blue water' between the policies of the Conservatives and other parties) and was favoured by Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher. His rise continued under John Major; he was made a Cabinet Minister as Chief Secretary to the Treasury (1992), and admitted to the Privy Council the same year. Portillo subsequently held the portfolios of Employment (1994) and then Defence (1995–1997).

His high profile led to constant attention from the media, including Private Eye, which mockingly referred to him as "Portaloo". He was accused of vanity when the Alexandra Palace was hired to celebrate his ten years in politics.[9]

Some saw the Defence Secretary post as a reward for his cautious loyalty to Major during the 1995 leadership challenge of John Redwood, following Major's "back me or sack me" resignation as party leader. Many urged Portillo to run against Major, and he set up a potential campaign headquarters with banks of telephone lines. He later admitted that this was an error; "I did not want to oppose [Major], but neither did I want to close the possibility of entering a second ballot if it came to that."[10] His opponents within the party later used Portillo's apparent equivocation as an example of his indecisiveness, and he acknowledged that "ambiguity is unattractive".[10]

As Defence Secretary Portillo invited criticism by invoking the motto of the SAS, "Who Dares, Wins", at a speech at the Conservative Party annual conference.[11]

1997 election defeat[edit]

Portillo's loss of the Enfield Southgate seat in the 1997 general election to Stephen Twigg came as a shock to many politicians and commentators, and came to symbolise the extent of the Labour landslide victory.[12] There had been a poll in The Observer newspaper on the weekend before the election which showed that Portillo held only a three-point lead in his hitherto safe seat.[12]

He had a memorable interview with Jeremy Paxman on the election night prior to the calling of his own seat. Paxman decisively opened the interview with the question "so Michael, are you going to miss the limo?" – a clear reference to the strong feeling going around on election night that he had lost his own seat. Portillo was then stumped with the follow up question of "are we seeing the end of the Conservative Party as a credible force in British politics?". He has since admitted that he knew he had lost his seat by the time of the interview:[12]

I saw that the exit poll was predicting a 160 seat majority for Labour. I thought, "when is Paxman going to ask me have I lost my seat?", because I deduced from that that I had. I then drove the car to my constituency and I knew I'd lost. But I also saw David Mellor. David Mellor had this really bad tempered spat with Jimmy Goldsmith [after the Putney election results had been announced]. I saw this and I thought if there's one thing I do when I lose, I'm going to lose with as much dignity as I can muster and not be like this David Mellor—Goldsmith thing.[13]

Portillo's defeat represented a 17.4% swing to Labour. Although Twigg retained the seat with an increased majority in 2001, it returned to the Conservative Party in 2005 with a swing of 8.7%.[14]

'Portillo moment'[edit]

The 1997 loss, symbolising the loss of the election by the Conservative Party, has been referred to as "the Portillo moment", and in the cliché "Were you up for Portillo?" (i.e., "Were you awake/did you see Portillo's result announced on television?")[12] Portillo himself commented, thirteen years later, that as a consequence "My name is now synonymous with eating a bucketload of shit in public."[15]

Return to the House of Commons[edit]

After the election, Portillo renewed his attachment to Kerr McGee but also undertook substantial media work including programmes for the BBC and Channel 4. He also seemed to be moving in his expressed opinions more towards the centre-right.

Portillo (left) being interviewed by Nick Robinson in 2001

In an interview with The Times given in the summer of 1999, Portillo admitted that "I had some homosexual experiences as a young person."[16] A few weeks after he had given this interview, the death of Alan Clark gave Portillo the opportunity to return to Parliament, despite Lord Tebbit accusing Portillo of lying about the extent of his sexual "deviance",[17] and similar comments from an associate included in a profile of Portillo in The Guardian newspaper.[18] He comfortably won the by-election in late November 1999 to represent Kensington and Chelsea, traditionally one of the safest Conservative seats.

On 1 February 2000, William Hague promoted Portillo to the Shadow Cabinet as Deputy Leader and Shadow Chancellor. On 3 February Portillo stood opposite the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, in the House of Commons for the first time in his new role. During this session, Portillo made two significant announcements:

  • The next Conservative Government will respect the independence of the Bank of England and will legislate to enhance that independence and increase accountability to Parliament
  • The next Conservative Government will not repeal the national minimum wage[19]

Bid for party leadership and retirement from politics[edit]

Following the 2001 general election Portillo contested the leadership of the party. In the first ballot of Conservative MPs, he led well. However, there followed press stories including veiled (and not-so-veiled) references to his previous homosexual experiences and to his equivocation at the time of Major's 1995 resignation. He was knocked out in the final round of voting by Conservative MPs, leaving party members to choose between Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke, the gay aspects of his past – according to Clarke – having damaged his chances.[20]

When Duncan Smith was elected leader, Portillo returned to the backbenches. In March 2003 he voted in favour of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In November 2003, having turned down an offer of a Shadow Cabinet post from the incoming Conservative leader Michael Howard,[21] Portillo announced that he would not seek re-election, and he left the House of Commons at the 2005 general election. His membership of the Conservative Party has since lapsed.[22]

Business interests[edit]

In September 2002, Portillo became a non-executive director of the multinational defence contractor BAE Systems. He stepped down from that position in March 2006 owing to potential conflicts of interest.[23] He was a member of the board of the Kerr-McGee Corporation for a few months in 2006.[24]

Media career[edit]

1998 saw Portillo make his first foray into broadcasting on Channel 4Portillo's Progress – three one-hour-long programmes looking into the changed social and political scene in Britain.[25] From 2002 onwards, Portillo developed an active career in media, both as a commentator on public affairs and as a writer and/or presenter of TV and radio documentaries.

Since 2003, Portillo has appeared in the BBC weekly political discussion programme This Week with Andrew Neil and, until September 2010, Labour MP Diane Abbott. Portillo has known Abbott for many years: they both attended schools in the London Borough of Harrow, Portillo and Abbott were in a joint school production of Romeo and Juliet, though not in the title roles.[26] Later, whilst still at school, Portillo cast Abbott in a film version of Macbeth, but the film was never completed. She played Lady Macduff to his Macduff.[26]

Portillo has featured in a number of television documentaries, including one on Richard Wagner, of whose music he is a fan, and two on Spain (he is a fluent Spanish speaker and holds Spanish as well as British citizenship): Great Railway Journeys: From Granada to Salamanca for BBC Two (2002), and a programme on Spanish wildlife for BBC Two's The Natural World series (2006). He took over for one week the life, family and income of a single mother living on benefits in Wallasey.[27][28]

He chose to present Queen Elizabeth I for the BBC's series of Great Britons in 2002. Between 2002 and 2007 he presented a discussion series, "Dinner with Portillo", on BBC Four, in which political and social questions are explored by Portillo and his seven guests, over a four-course meal. His guests included Bianca Jagger, Grayson Perry, Francis Wheen, Seymour Hersh, PD James, Baroness Williams, George Galloway, Benazir Bhutto and Germaine Greer.

He is a long-serving member of the panel in the BBC Radio 4 series The Moral Maze.

In 2007, he participated in the BBC television project The Verdict, serving, with other well-known figures, as a jury member hearing a fictional rape case. He was elected the jury's foreman.

The documentary How To Kill a Human Being, in the Horizon series, featured Portillo carrying out a survey of capital punishment methods (including undertaking some near death experiences himself) in an attempt to find an 'acceptable' form. It was broadcast on BBC Two on 15 January 2008.[29]

He made a second Horizon documentary, entitled How Violent Are You?, which was broadcast on 12 May 2009.[30]

Portillo served as chairman of the 2008 Man Booker Prize committee.[31]

In 2008 Portillo made a documentary as part of the BBC Headroom campaign (which explores mental health issues). Portillo's documentary Michael Portillo: Death of a School Friend explores how the suicide of Portillo's classmate Gary Findon affected Findon's parents, brother, music teachers, school teachers, classmates, and Portillo himself. The programme was originally broadcast on Friday 7 November 2008.[32]

In 2009, Portillo appeared in the second episode of the second series of The Supersizers eat... to discuss medieval cuisine and Magna Carta. Filmed in 2009 but first broadcast 4 January 2010, Portillo presented Great British Railway Journeys in which he explored, with the aid of George Bradshaw's 1863 tourist handbook, how the railways had a profound influence on the social, economic and political history of Britain. A second series was broadcast on BBC2 during 2011 and the third series followed a year later on the same channel in January 2012, with a fourth series later broadcasting January 2013. A similar series, Great Continental Railway Journeys, following Portillo around Europe, was shown in November and December 2012 with a second series a year later.

In 2014 as part of the BBC World War I commemorations Portillo presented Railways of the Great War with Michael Portillo over five nights 4 August 2014 – 8 August 2014.[33]

In September 2011 he presented a two-part series on BBC Radio 4 entitled Capitalism on Trial.[34] He has also presented a historical series on BBC Radio 4 called The Things We Forgot to Remember.[35]

Portillo has written a regular column for The Sunday Times, contributes to other journals (he was a theatre critic for the New Statesman until May 2006),[36] and is a regular radio broadcaster in the UK. In June 2013, he presented a fifteen-minute programme (following The World at One) on BBC Radio 4 called 1913 – the Year Before about the state of Britain in the years preceding World War I, challenging the view that these years were all optimistic and cheerful years.[37]

A new ten-part television series, Portillo's State Secrets, in which Portillo examines classified documents from the British National Archives, commenced 23 March 2015 on BBC Two.[38]

Charitable and voluntary activities[edit]

Since 1998, Portillo has been a Commissioner of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).[39] He is a trustee of the charity The Parliamentary Committee Against Anti-Semitism,[40] and also President of DEBRA, a British charity working on behalf of people with epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a genetic skin blistering condition.[24]

Portillo is the British chairman of the Anglo-Spanish organisation Tertulias, which organises annual meetings between the two countries.[24] He is also a Honorary Vice-President of Canning House, the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council.[41]

Arts Endowment Fund[edit]

On 4 July 2011 it was announced that Portillo would chair a new £55m Arts Endowment Fund, to be supported by the Arts Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Applicants will be able to bid for grants of between £500,000 and £5m, which must be matched from the private sector.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Portillo, Michael (18 October 2001). "Blood of Spain". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 January 2012. 
  2. ^ Portillo, Michael (27 July 2003). "Kirkcaldy Lino Factory". Mail on Sunday. Retrieved 14 January 2010. 
  3. ^ "Fond farewell to Michael Portillo's vivacious mother". London Evening Standard. 3 April 2014. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  4. ^ BBC - Great Continental Railway Journeys, Season 2 Episode 6. Portillo mentions this whilst holding up both his British and his Spanish passports to the camera.
  5. ^ Maynard, Jeff. "Old Gaytonians in Politics". Virtual Gaytonian. Archived from the original on 8 May 2006. Retrieved 29 July 2007. 
  6. ^ "CV: Michael Portillo". BBC News. 2001. Retrieved 29 July 2007. 
  7. ^ McElvoy, Anne (30 September 2000). "Michael Portillo: The great pretender". The Independent. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  8. ^ "In praise of… the Settle to Carlisle line". The Guardian. 30 December 2009. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  9. ^ Grant, Linda (14 August 1994). "Vanity: the deadliest sin: Linda Grant discovers blowing one's own trumpet is beyond the pale in modest, self-deprecating Britain". The Independent. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  10. ^ a b Michael Portillo (15 April 2007). "Believe me, Mr Miliband, No 10 is within your grasp". The Sunday Times (London). Retrieved 21 November 2007. 
  11. ^ Katwala, Sunder (22 July 2001). "The rise and fall of Michael Portillo". The Observer. Retrieved 12 March 2014. 
  12. ^ a b c d "Nation rejoices as Portillo loses seat". The Observer. 12 September 1999. Retrieved 25 November 2012. 
  13. ^ This Week, BBC One, 26 April 2007
  14. ^ "Result: Enfield Southgate". BBC News. 6 May 2005. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  15. ^ Portillo, Michael (6 May 2010). "My moment is yours, Ed Balls". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  16. ^ "Portillo begins comeback". BBC News. 9 September 1999. Retrieved 12 May 2010. 
  17. ^ "Tebbit hits out at Portillo 'deviance'". BBC News. 24 September 1999. Retrieved 21 November 2007. 
  18. ^ Roth, Andrew (20 March 2001). "Michael Portillo". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 December 2012. 
  19. ^ "Portillo springs surprise U-turns". BBC News. 3 February 2000. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  20. ^ Womack, Sarah (7 January 2002). "Gay past hit Portillo's leadership bid, says Clarke". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 17 December 2012. 
  21. ^ "Howard mulls first shadow cabinet". BBC News. 9 November 2003. Retrieved 12 May 2008. 
  22. ^ Michael Portillo, quoted in Election Uncovered: What They Won't Tell Us, Channel 4, 2 May 2010
  23. ^ Costello, Miles (27 March 2006). "Portillo quits BAE over conflicts". The Times. Retrieved 21 November 2007. 
  24. ^ a b c Biography at Portillo official website
  25. ^ BFI database
  26. ^ a b This detail, correcting an error, was added by Clive Anderson on 2 July 2007, as an example of the workings of this site, during the making of Factual: The Wikipedia Story (BBC Radio 4), first broadcast on 24 July 2007. Anderson was at school with Abbott and Portillo; the issue of 'original research' was not raised in the programme itself.
  27. ^ "Portillo learns perils of childcare". BBC News. 30 July 2003. Retrieved 21 November 2007. 
  28. ^ "Your views: Portillo as a single mum". BBC News. 16 October 2003. Retrieved 21 November 2007. 
  29. ^ Portillo, Michael (15 January 2008). "How to Kill a Human Being". Horizon. BBC Two. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b008rdyh. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  30. ^ Portillo, Michael (12 May 2009). "How Violent Are You?". Horizon. BBC Two. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kk4bz. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  31. ^ "Michael Portillo to chair 2008 Man Booker judges" (Press release). Man Booker Prize. 18 December 2007. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  32. ^ "Michael Portillo: Death of a School Friend". BBC Two. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  33. ^ BBC home page for series http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04ddmt3 retrieved 8 August 2014
  34. ^ "Capitalism on Trial". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  35. ^ "Things We Forget to Remember". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  36. ^ Reviews by Portillo on New Statesman website, accessed 14 May 2014.
  37. ^ "1913– The Year Before" on BBC website, accessed 22 October 2014.
  38. ^ "Portillo's State Secrets" on BBC website, accessed 22 March 2015.
  39. ^ Commissioners ICMP – International Commission on Missing Persons
  40. ^ The Parliamentary Committee Against Anti-Semitism, Registered Charity no. 1089736 at the Charity Commission
  41. ^ "Our People". Canning House. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  42. ^ "Michael Portillo to head up £55m arts fund scheme". BBC News. 4 July 2011. Archived from the original on 26 August 2011. Retrieved 4 July 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Anthony Berry
Member of Parliament for Enfield Southgate
Succeeded by
Stephen Twigg
Preceded by
Alan Clark
Member of Parliament for Kensington and Chelsea
Succeeded by
Malcolm Rifkind
Political offices
Preceded by
David Mellor
Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Succeeded by
Jonathan Aitken
Preceded by
David Hunt
Secretary of State for Employment
Succeeded by
Gillian Shephard
as Secretary of State for Education and Employment
Preceded by
Malcolm Rifkind
Secretary of State for Defence
Succeeded by
George Robertson
Preceded by
Francis Maude
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by
Michael Howard