Daring Portillo delighted with his life beyond politics

He was the right-winger who once roused the Tory Party conference with the jingoistic cry: Who Dares Wins . These days, he s making TV programmes about single mums and judging the Man Booker Prize. Bridget Galton asks: Whatever s happened to Michael P

He was the right-winger who once roused the Tory Party conference with the jingoistic cry: "Who Dares Wins".

These days, he's making TV programmes about single mums

and judging the Man Booker Prize. Bridget Galton asks:

"Whatever's happened to Michael Portillo?"

THE moment Michael Portillo was unseated from his Enfield constituency at the 1997 election became a defining image of the New Labour landslide.

Optimistic lefties, raised under the shadow of Thatcherism, punched the air at the demise of a notorious right-winger who piloted the Poll Tax and enthusiastically wielded the treasury axe during those dark days of 80s cuts.

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But a torrent of water has flowed under the political bridge since then. Portillo returned to Parliament, admitted a gay past, unsuccessfully contested the party leadership. Then quit politics forever.

And while he was pragmatically reinventing himself as a respected broadcaster and political commentator with centre-ground convictions, disillusioned left-wingers grudgingly grew to recognise that 'at least Thatcher believed in what she was up to'.

The hubris of that night more than a decade ago sparked the sea-change in Portillo's life. Charming, humorous, and remarkably honest, he admits his 1999 return to parliament following a by-election in the late Alan Clarke's Kensington and Chelsea seat, was largely to prove a point. Once in opposition, the former defence secretary, shadow Chancellor and ruthlessly ambitious politician discovered he had lost his drive for frontline politics.

"The first time I left, I was kicked out. The second time it was a deliberate decision. I proved I could get back but almost as soon as I did I realised I had lost the oomph it needed. When I was in office the pressure was very, very great, but I always found the rewards were greater and made up for everything. In opposition the stress was as great but the rewards were zero. It was a daily struggle for basic credibility. I am very happy to be out of it. My party is not in office and I am spending my 50s more happily out of politics than I would be in it."

His most recent projects, a Horizon documentary about capital punishment broadcast last Tuesday, and chairing this year's Man Booker Prize, are more in line with Portillo's enjoyment of broader horizons.

Aware that voters are increasingly turned off party politics, he hopes the populist media can still create debate.

For one week he lived off the income support of a single mother for one TV programme and for Horizon's How To Kill A Human Being he explored and condemned existing forms of state execution as inhumane.

"It's a fantastic privilege to be allowed to make such diverse TV programmes on music, history, politics and crime. I am still extremely interested in politics and I don't want to be pompous about it but I have seen an opening for me to explore politics by other means. If people see a programme about politics they tend to switch off but you can use TV to get under the radar."

On Monday, he will talk about politics and broadcasting at Regent's College's Speakers in the Park series. He welcomes the debate that follows his talks.

"People come to something like that to get the opportunity to interact on a range of political topics which is fantastic."

Two years out of office, Portillo loves the liberty of no longer spending all his evenings at the Commons. Over Christmas he spent more consecutive evenings at home than at any time since 1984. "I gave up the habit of coming home at a reasonable time. But you are more than one person during your lifetime and I have developed in different ways. I am more interested in work life balance than I was."

From March to July, he will be in every day, ploughing through 115 Booker novels.

"I am quite daunted and worried about having to somehow read a book a day," he says, confessing his personal taste is for biography, the classics and a handful of new novels. "Being honest, this will be a quantum jump in the amount of reading I do but one of the reasons I have taken it on is it will force me to read more."

He sees the Booker as a broadly commercial event that has the positive effect of making more people interested in buying books, "which has to be a good thing".

"The judges are meant to be a balance of individuals. It's not unusual to have a politician as a chairman. The job is about making sure there is a decision made to the deadline. If you are lucky there will be a recognisably outstanding winner but otherwise it's a compromise that may satisfy no-one. We shouldn't take it all too seriously or say that's the best book this year."

Portillo, 54, was famously born to a refugee father who fled to England following the Spanish Civil War. (These origins earned him the Westminster village soubriquet The Pain from Spain)

After early support for the Labour Party, (he had a poster of Harold Wilson on his wall and helped out at election time) he was converted to the right while studying History at Oxford. In 1976 he started working for the Conservative Research department and by 1979 was helping to brief Margaret Thatcher ahead of press conferences leading up to the Tories' landslide election.

"Whatever I said to her about what was in the papers that day she would have an explosive reaction and people worried she would repeat that in the press conference but she was letting off steam. People didn't realise what a natural showman she was. She had an incredibly sure touch about how to make a photo opportunity or say the thing that was going to stick in people's minds."

Portillo, who examines Thatcher's legacy in a TV programme next month, fully admits he and other party apparatchiks initially underestimated her.

"To be honest we were rather patronising. She was so unconventional that when she first became leader there was a feeling she wouldn't last. There were lots of people around at the time who were the old guard who were not ready for change and looked down their noses at Margaret Thatcher. It was only a couple of years into her period of office that we saw she was exceptional and would change the country and indeed the world."

The thrust of Portillo's programme is that such a "great conviction politician" left a vacuum for the party.

"She was very strong and it's been difficult for anyone to stand comparison with her. She defined the Tory party by what it was against. She identified the dragons and killed them. What on earth was the Tory party then for? It's taken until now - and four successive leaders - to try to find another explanation."

Far from loathing the Labour party, as he has moved towards the centre ground, Portillo has admired Blair and Brown's leadership.

"For all his faults Blair was a once in a generation politician like Thatcher, a political genius with a way of making people like him and a self deprecating humour. Some people are worn down by the pressure of office but when I last met Tony Blair he was in the middle of some terrible crisis and was beaming from ear to ear. I told him he was looking remarkably well and he said 'it's just the privilege of it, the responsibility, it's so exhilarating.'

"He loved the challenge of it. He was like Houdini at the bottom of the swimming pool trying to escape."

When Portillo first contested a by-election in 1983 he stood on a bring-back-hanging ticket. It is a testament to his reputation as a political shape shifter that he adapted to the leadership regimes of Thatcher, Major, Hague and IDS, but although he tellingly reveals "I was never as right-wing as people thought," he says learning from mistakes has helped mellow his views.

"When you get booted out with a fantastic majority against us, you have to learn lessons from it. I have moved towards the centre ground from where I was earlier in my life. I helped to change things so that a move to the centre was possible. I strongly believe the Conservative Party has to move that way to be re-elected and that's the policy David Cameron is following today."

One of those mistakes was the Poll Tax which he now confesses was "absolutely mad" and "failed all the basic tests of a political policy by asking 13 million people who had probably never paid a bill before to pay a tax."

Portillo has certainly contributed to change in the political landscape. To forcing through changes that helped create a new era of consensual politics.

"There is contentment. Not much happens when the government changes these days both parties have similar economic policies and people are apathetic because it doesn't make much difference which way they vote.What's become clear is that the Tory party will recover in future. It is so far behind that it can't hope to win a majority in the next parliament but they are broadly on the right track and the current government has become unpopular in a way that sooner or later will be its undoing."

o Tickets to the Speaker in the Park event on Monday night cost £20 and can be booked on 020-7487 7745.