Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo (born 26 May 1953) is a British journalist, broadcaster, and former Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister of the Conservative Party. He 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. A "darling of the right", he was seen as a likely challenger to Major during the 1995 Conservative leadership election, but stayed loyal. As Defence Secretary, he pressed for a purist Thatcherite course of "clear blue water", separating the policies of the Conservatives from those of the Labour Party.
Portillo in 2017
Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo
26 May 1953
|Political party||None (formerly Conservative)|
Portillo unexpectedly lost the hitherto safely Conservative Enfield Southgate seat at the 1997 general election. This led to the coining of the expression "Portillo moment". Returning to the Commons after being given the Conservative candidacy in the 1999 by-election in Kensington and Chelsea, 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, he finally came in third place behind Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke.
Portillo retired from the House of Commons and from active politics at the 2005 general election, and has since pursued his media interests, presenting and participating in a wide range of television and radio programmes. Portillo's passion for steam trains led him to make the BBC documentary series Great British Railway Journeys, beginning in 2010, in which he travels the British railway networks, referring to an 1840s copy of Bradshaw's Guide. The show's success led Portillo to present a number of further series about railway systems in other countries.
Portillo was born in Bushey, Hertfordshire, to an exiled Spanish republican father, Luis Gabriel Portillo (1907–1993) and a Scottish mother, Cora Waldegrave (née Blyth) (1919–2014). Portillo's father, a devout Catholic, was a member of left-wing movements in the 1930s and fled Madrid when it fell to General Franco in 1939, settling in England. He became head of the London Diplomatic Office of the Government in Exile in 1972. Portillo's maternal grandfather, John Blyth, was a prosperous linen mill owner from Kirkcaldy.
In 1961, Portillo appeared 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 and then won a scholarship to Peterhouse, Cambridge. While at school Portillo had supported the cause of the Labour Party; he attributed his embrace of conservatism at Cambridge to the influence of the right-wing Peterhouse historian Maurice Cowling.
On February 12, 1982, Portillo married Carolyn Claire Eadie.
Political career (1984–2005)Edit
Portillo graduated in 1975 with a first-class degree in history, and, after a brief stint with Ocean Transport and Trading Ltd., a shipping and transport company, he joined the Conservative Research Department in 1976. Following the Conservative victory in 1979, he became a government adviser to David Howell at the Department of Energy. He left to work for Kerr-McGee Oil between 1981 and 1983. In the 1983 general election, he fought his first electoral contest, in the Labour-held seat of Birmingham Perry Barr, losing to the incumbent Jeff Rooker.
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 of the Grand Hotel, Brighton by the IRA. Initially, he was a Parliamentary Private Secretary to John Moore, and then an assistant whip.
In 1987, Portillo was given his first ministerial post, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security; the following year, he was promoted to Minister of State for Transport. Portillo has stated that he considers "saving the Settle to Carlisle railway" was his greatest achievement. He was a strong supporter of Margaret Thatcher.
In 1990, Portillo was appointed Minister of State for Local Government, in which post he argued in favour of the ultimately highly unpopular Community Charge system (popularly known as "the Poll Tax"). He demonstrated a consistently right-of-centre line (exemplified by his insistence, in a well-publicised speech, on placing "clear blue water" between the policies of the Conservatives and other parties) and was favoured by Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher, who said of him "[W]e expect great things of you, do not disappoint us". His rise continued under John Major; he was made a Cabinet Minister in 1992 as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and was admitted to the Privy Council the same year. He subsequently became Secretary of State for Employment (1994–95), and then Secretary of State for 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.
Some saw the Defence Secretary post as a reward for Portillo's 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, the "darling of the right", to run against Major. He declined to enter the first round, but planned to challenge Major if the contest went to a second round. To this end, he set up a potential campaign headquarters, with banks of telephone lines. He later admitted that this had been 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." Portillo acknowledged that "ambiguity is unattractive" and his opponents within the party later used Portillo's apparent equivocation as an example of his indecisiveness; "I appeared happy to wound but afraid to strike: a dishonourable position."
1997 election defeatEdit
Portillo's loss of the Enfield Southgate seat, in the 1997 general election to Labour's Stephen Twigg, came as a shock to many politicians and commentators, and came to symbolise the extent of the Labour landslide victory. Halfway through the campaign, Portillo invited aides Andrew Cooper and Michael Simmonds to his house and presented them with some ideas for a leadership campaign following the expected Conservative defeat and asked them to finish it off. However, when a poll in The Observer on the weekend before the election showed that Portillo held only a three-point lead in his hitherto-safe seat, Portillo asked Cooper, who oversaw the party's internal polling, to reassure him that it was wrong; Cooper was unable to and Portillo began to think that he might lose.
He had a memorable interview with Jeremy Paxman on election night, prior to the result being called in his own seat. Paxman opened the interview with the question "so Michael, are you going to miss the limo?"—a reference to the expectation that the Conservatives were headed for defeat and thus he would no longer be a Minister. Portillo was then asked "are we seeing the end of the Conservative Party as a credible force in British politics?". He has since revealed that, prior to the interview, he had already come to believe he had lost his seat:
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.
Portillo's defeat represented a 17.4% swing to Labour. Symbolising the loss of the election by the Conservative Party, it 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?") Portillo himself commented, thirteen years later, that as a consequence "My name is now synonymous with eating a bucketload of shit in public."
Return to ParliamentEdit
After the election, Portillo renewed his attachment to Kerr-McGee, but also undertook substantial media work, including programmes for the BBC and Channel 4. In an interview with The Times given in the summer of 1999, Portillo said that "I had some homosexual experiences as a young person." A few weeks after he had given that 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", and similar comments from an associate included in a profile of Portillo in The Guardian newspaper. 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 announced that a future Conservative government would enhance the independence of the Bank of England and increase its accountability to Parliament, and that it would not repeal the national minimum wage.
2001 leadership electionEdit
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 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, his sexual history – according to Kenneth Clarke – having damaged his chances, leaving party members to choose between Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke.
Retirement from politicsEdit
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, he 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.
Talking to Andrew Neil on This Week in May 2016, he gave his views on the effectiveness of David Cameron's government and its legislative plans as described in the Queen's speech; "After 23 years of careful thought about what they would like to do in power ... the answer is nothing", a description which The Guardian described as "elegant".
Portillo has supported Brexit, though also has expressed the opinion that in the British system, where Parliament is sovereign, the 2016 Brexit referendum "absolutely does not fit with our system" and that "parliament has the right to interpret" the result. In a 2016 television discussion he said that "because of the catastrophic blunder committed by David Cameron, [Nigel] Farage deserves a place in history" because "he spooked the Prime Minister into holding a referendum that he then lost." He has also condemned Theresa May's 2018 "Chequers Plan" for exit negotiations: "I think this is the most dreadful betrayal and if I had been a member of the Cabinet, I would have been one of the ones who would have quit over the weekend."
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. He was a member of the board of the Kerr-McGee Corporation for a few months in 2006.
Broadcasting career (1998–present)Edit
1998 saw Portillo make his first foray into broadcasting on Channel 4 with Portillo's Progress—three 60-minute-long programmes looking into the changed social and political scene in Britain. 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 television and radio documentaries.
Portillo has featured in a number of television documentaries. In 2002 these included one about Richard Wagner, and one in Spain: Great Railway Journeys: From Granada to Salamanca, for BBC Two (2002). In 2006 he made a programme on Spanish wildlife for BBC Two's The Natural World series. For an episode of the 2003 BBC Two series My Week In The Real World, in which politicians stepped into the shoes of members of the public, Portillo took over, for one week, the life, family and income of a single mother living on benefits in Wallasey.
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 called 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. 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 as 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 of capital punishment. It was broadcast on BBC Two on 15 January 2008. He made a second Horizon documentary, titled How Violent Are You?, broadcast on 12 May 2009.
In 2008, Portillo made a documentary as part of the BBC Headroom campaign, which explored 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, schoolteachers, classmates, and Portillo himself. The programme was originally broadcast on 7 November 2008.
In 2009, he filmed a series titled 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. The series commenced broadcasting in January 2010. A second series was broadcast on BBC Two in 2011, and to date there has been a total of nine series. Portillo also presented a similar television series called Great Continental Railway Journeys, following Portillo around continental Europe, using his George Bradshaw's 1913 Continental Railway Guide.
A second series was broadcast in 2013, and to date there has been a total of six series. In 2014, as part of the BBC's World War I commemorations, Portillo presented Railways of the Great War with Michael Portillo over five nights in August 2014. In early 2016, Portillo began a new BBC travel documentary series, Great American Railroad Journeys, which saw him travelling across the United States by rail. Other similar series followed: Great Indian Railway Journeys from 2018 and Great Alaskan and Canadian Railroad Journeys, which started airing in January 2019.
Press and radioEdit
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), and is a regular radio broadcaster on UK radio. He is a long-serving member of the panel in the BBC Radio 4 series The Moral Maze. In September 2011, he presented a two-part series on BBC Radio 4 called Capitalism on Trial. He has also presented a history series on BBC Radio 4 called The Things We Forgot to Remember. In June 2013, he presented a series of 12 15-minute radio programmes (following the daily World at One news programme) 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 optimistic and cheerful.
Since 1998, Portillo has been a Commissioner of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). He is President of DEBRA, a British charity working on behalf of people with epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a genetic skin blistering condition.
In 2011, Portillo became chairman of a new arts endowment fund supported by the Arts Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Applicants could bid for grants of between £500,000 and £5m, which were to be matched from the private sector. The fund, which operated under the title "Catalyst: Endowments", made 31 awards over the two years 2012–13 totalling £36 million. Recipients included Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Mary Rose Trust, Lincoln Cathedral and the Severn Valley Railway.
Portillo is the British chairman of the Anglo-Spanish organisation Tertulias, which organises annual meetings between the two countries. He is also an Honorary Vice-President of Canning House, the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council.
- Michael Portillo was sworn in as a member of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom in 1992, giving him the honorific title "The Right Honourable".
- He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Richmond, The American International University in London in 2003.
- In 2018 Portillo was made a fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (FRSGS).
- Portillo has known Abbott for many years: they both attended schools in the London Borough of Harrow, and both were in a joint school production of Romeo and Juliet, though not in the title roles. Later, while 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. These details of their schooldays were originally added to this article by Clive Anderson on 2 July 2007, as an example of the workings of Wikipedia, during the making of 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' (i.e. that Anderson had contributed these details from his own knowledge, not from a secondary source), was not addressed in the programme itself.
- "Portillo, Rt Hon. Michael (Denzil Xavier), (born 26 May 1953), PC 1992; broadcaster and journalist". Who's Who. 2007. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.31200.
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- Gove (1995), pp. 10–11.
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- 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.
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- Michael Portillo, quoted in Election Uncovered: What They Won't Tell Us, Channel 4, 2 May 2010.
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- Extract from This Week broadcast 8 March 2019
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- "Capitalism on Trial". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
- "Things We Forget to Remember". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
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- Commissioners ICMP – International Commission on Missing Persons.
- "Michael Portillo to chair 2008 Man Booker judges" (Press release). Man Booker Prize. 18 December 2007. Archived from the original on 9 April 2014. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
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- "Catalyst: Endowments" on Heritage Lottery Fund website, accessed 2 October 2017; "Catalyst: Endowment Annual Report 2015", University of Kent, 2015, p. 4 (on Heritage Lottery Fund website, accessed 2 October 2017).
- "Our People". Canning House. Archived from the original on 9 April 2014. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
- "The Right Honourable Michael Portillo to open the 2017 Exhibition", website of the Pastel Society, accessed 2 October 2017.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Michael Portillo.|
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Michael Portillo|
- Official website
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Michael Portillo
- Portillo's columns for The Sunday Times
- The Guardian - Ask Aristotle about Michael Portillo
- They Work For You – Michael Portillo
- The Public Whip – Michael Portillo voting record
- Harrow County Grammar School
- Michael Portillo on IMDb
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
| Member of Parliament for Enfield Southgate
| Member of Parliament for Kensington and Chelsea
| Chief Secretary to the Treasury
| Secretary of State for Employment
as Secretary of State for Education and Employment
| Secretary of State for Defence
| Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer