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Michael Portillo

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Leader  William Hague
Preceded by  Malcolm Rifkind
Height  1.80 m
Prime Minister  John Major
Role  Journalist

Succeeded by  Michael Howard
Name  Michael Portillo
Preceded by  Francis Maude
Succeeded by  George Robertson
Spouse  Carolyn Eadie (m. 1982)
Michael Portillo Michael Portillo Political Speaker To Book Or Hire

Parents  Luis Gabriel Portillo, Cora Waldegrave Blyth de Portillo
Books  Railways of the Great War
TV shows  Great British Railway J, Great Continental Railway J, This Week, Christianity: A History, The Verdict
Similar People  Andrew Neil, Diane Abbott, Luis Gabriel Portillo, Alan Johnson, Peter Lilley
Born  26 May 1953 (age 67), Bushey, United Kingdom

Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo PC (born 26 May 1953) is a British journalist, broadcaster, and former Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister. 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 Labour.


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Portillo unexpectedly lost his safe 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 narrowly came in 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.

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Early life and career

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Portillo was born in Bushey, Hertfordshire to an exiled Spanish republican father, Luis Gabriel Portillo (1907–1993) and a Scottish mother, Cora (née Blyth) (1919–2014), whose father John Blyth was a prosperous linen mill owner from Kirkcaldy.

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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.

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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 and then won a scholarship to Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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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. 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 has been married to Carolyn Eadie since 1982.

Political career

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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 was to retain the Enfield Southgate seat until 1997.

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Initially, he was a Parliamentary Private Secretary to John Moore, and then an assistant whip. In 1987, he 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.

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, 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 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.

In government

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."

As Defence Secretary, Portillo became the object of criticism when he invoked the motto of the SAS, "Who Dares, Wins", at a speech at the Conservative Party annual conference.

1997 election defeat

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.

'Portillo moment'

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?") 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 Parliament

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 election

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 politics

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 supports Brexit, and, in a television discussion after the referendum in 2016, 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."

Business interests

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.

Media career

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.

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, 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.

Portillo has featured in a number of television documentaries, including one about Richard Wagner, of whose music he is a fan, and two on Spain (he is fluent in Spanish 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.

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.

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 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.

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

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.

He made a second Horizon documentary, titled How Violent Are You?, broadcast on 12 May 2009.

In 2009, Portillo appeared in the second episode of the second series of The Supersizers eat... to discuss medieval cuisine and the Magna Carta. That year, he also 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. It was broadcast weekly from 4 January 2010. A second series was broadcast on BBC Two in 2011, and to date there has been a total of eight 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 five series.

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 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.

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

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.

The Enemy Files, a documentary presented by Portillo, was shown on RTÉ One in Ireland, as well as the BBC, ahead of the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016. Portillo declared that the execution of the 16 leaders of the insurrection was justified.

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 in the UK. In June 2013, he presented a 15-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 optimistic and cheerful.

Charitable and voluntary activities

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.

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.

Portillo has a strong interest in contemporary visual arts and is Chairman of the Federation of British Artists (FBA) the educational arts charity housed at Mall Galleries, London.

Arts Endowment Fund

In 2011, Portillo became head of a new £55m Arts Endowment Fund supported by the Arts Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Applicants can bid for grants of between £500,000 and £5m, which must be matched from the private sector.


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