Peter Oborne

It’s sad in a way, but Michael Portillo is no longer a serious figure

It's sad in a way, but Michael Portillo is no longer a serious figure

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The prospect of war now eclipses everything at Westminster. To use the narrow, though reassuring, boundaries of the English racing calendar, hostilities are unlikely to break out before the final day of the Cheltenham Festival on 13 March. But they will probably have ceased, at any rate as far as the initial stage of the conflict is concerned, by the time the Grand National is run on 5 April.

From a parochial perspective, the next few weeks will go far towards determining how the Blair premiership is judged by historians. Since the 2001 general election the government has on a number of occasions given the impression that it will inevitably collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. It has lost momentum, giving the impression of being cast adrift. Successful resolution of the crisis will give the Prime Minister new confidence and a freer hand. Allies of Tony Blair believe that he will be able to use the aftermath of the Iraq imbroglio to reshape a Cabinet more to his liking, just as the Falklands war gave Margaret Thatcher her chance to wield the axe. Within Downing Street there is a view that success in Iraq will enable the Prime Minister to replace Gordon Brown at the Treasury. Nobody has any illusions that failure will enable Brown to replace Tony Blair in No. 10 Downing Street. 'One way or another, Gordon Brown will be out of No. 11 by Christmas,' says one admirer of the Prime Minister.

This short three-week period, as the days lengthen and the English spring takes hold, has a bearing on more than domestic politics. It will be decisive in shaping the world that will emerge over the next generation. In six weeks' time, we may be standing on the edge of a new barbarism, and be looking forward to an epoch of moral and economic impoverishment. The American alliance, upon which British foreign policy has been based for 60 years, may have sundered. The United Nations may play a full role in re-affirming the values of liberalism and a free world order. Or it may have drifted towards irrelevance. That is how much the coming days and weeks count for in all our lives.

The Conservative party chose this pregnant moment in our national history to embark upon one of its increasingly frequent spasms. The latest agitation might have been understandable, admirable even, had it been provoked by disagreement about the war. But it was not. It came about because Michael Portillo, failed contender in the 2001 leadership election, took exception to internal moves within Conservative Central Office.

Mr Portillo's allies assert that Iain Duncan Smith provoked the crisis by making personnel changes; above all, by sacking his chief of staff, Mark MacGregor. But this claim has no merit. It is axiomatic that any party leader is entitled to choose his own people, even if others find those choices baffling. Last week's undignified and regrettable crisis was brought about not by Duncan Smith, but by his enemies. They attempted to turn the Central Office reorganisation into a cause cZlŒbre that would destroy his leadership. In the end they failed, but they came perplexingly close to success.

The frenzy took full hold with Michael Portillo's extraordinary, contemptuous interview with The World At One last Friday lunchtime. It was an all-out attack on Duncan Smith. The motive can only have been the destruction of the current leadership. By a curious chance the attack immediately gained an appearance of momentum when Derek Conway, the incongruous replacement to Sir Edward Heath as MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, entered the fray. Conway did not feel Portillo's admiration for Mark MacGregor. Nor is there any evidence that Conway shared Portillo's wider objective of displacing Mr Duncan Smith. Conway was driven by one single but fanatical emotion: scorn for MacGregor's replacement, Barry Legg. Conway, who was brought up in the tough school, is a man who nurses his grudges. Do Conway a bad turn, and he regards it as a matter of honour that he will do you a far worse turn later. He is more than happy to bide his time. Revenge, for Conway, is a dish best eaten cold. He has nursed his grudge against the hapless Legg ever since, back in the mid-1990s, Legg was a Maastricht rebel and Conway the murderously brutal Maastricht whip. The grudge deepened yet further when Legg was a rival candidate for the Bexley constituency nomination before the 2001 election. It was then that Conway acquired the information that Legg had flirted with defecting, like the Dukes of Rutland and Devonshire, to the United Kingdom Independence party - information which he put to such effective use last week.

But the Conway outburst was subject to overinterpretation. Though he is an admirer of David Davis, and would most certainly act as lieutenant to Davis in any leadership contest, on this occasion Conway was on a solo mission. Whether or not Davis attempted to dissuade Conway from his intemperate course of action is unknown, but nothing and no one could have prevented Derek Conway from acting in the way that he did. Conway's involvement obscured for a while the fact that Portillo's call to arms on The World At One had failed to work. It was not merely David Davis and his adherents who failed to rally to the Portillo flag - that might have been anticipated; far more important was the immobility from the Kenneth Clarke camp. These days the crucial sign that Clarke is on manoeuvres comes when Michael Heseltine speaks out, as he periodically does in venomous tones from his Northamptonshire arboretum. Heseltine remained silent. Clarke cordially despises Duncan Smith, but he is prepared to move against him on one condition only: a clear run for the leadership and assurances that no other mainstream contender would stand. When word reached Clarke from rival camps that that was out of the question, he sat on his hands.

Within the tiny pool of Conservative politics, the importance of last week is that it marks the moment when Michael Portillo ceased to be a serious figure. It is a moment tinged with sadness. In both the Thatcher and Major governments he was a rising minister of undeniable talent. He was one of the very few Tory politicians with anything like the charisma and force of personality to make an impact on the national stage. Now he can be talked of in the past tense. Last week he attempted to destroy Duncan Smith, but ended up destroying only himself. Now he passes into the ghastly, sepulchral half-world where failed or disgraced politicians tend to end up these days: a world of late-night chat-shows, desultory appearances on the back benches, chunky fees for after-dinner speeches, and - with luck - a couple of remunerative directorships. Life is not too bad: David Mellor has blazed the trail. But it is a tragedy in its way, though some will think not a very great one.