If Michael Portillo hoped to dump his gay baggage safely distant
from the next election, he overlooked the insatiable hunger of today’s
He has lit a fuse of his own making and hordes of chequebook journalists
will be combing the backwoods of his youth searching for buried
Rule One of sound media strategy: tell the whole truth. Portillo,
however, short-changed our ever-intrusive press. Whom was he ’gay’ with?
Until when? Where are they today? What other skeletons are there in the
1970s cupboards of Peterhouse, where one don during Portillo’s time went
by the nickname ’Wendy’?
Rule Two: the media is unforgiving. It is a myth that Britain is more
tolerant. It has simply become more prurient, hooked on ever-increasing
lewdness, with the media doing the dirty work. Witness the diet of
salacious scuttlebutt about public figures in tabloids and heavies
alike. And cross-dressing in high places makes dream copy. Senior Tories
have praised Portillo’s belated confessions but the media - not they -
are the arbiters of public perception. Indeed, to the average newshound,
politicians as a class are all-time ’bad guys’: dishonest, unloved and
Portillo may regain his seat in Parliament. After all, the Tories of
Kensington and Chelsea were maverick enough to choose Alan Clark. But
they are not the UK electorate. And the media will magnify the many
voices of dissent. Gay activists - who respect openly gay ministers like
Chris Smith and Nick Brown - will be infuriated by Portillo’s dismissal
of his gay past as a shameful moral lapse. Countless closet homophobes
in the Conservative party will sneer at mention of his name.
Meanwhile, large numbers of ordinary Tory supporters are elderly; few
would be comfortable with a party leader with such a past. Others will
be moved to music hall banter at his expense - a damaging outcome for a
Downing Street hopeful.
So Portillo’s cunning plan to come clean in a bid to start his route to
Number 10 will probably come unstuck. Media conspiracy theories will
multiply; column inches will groan with speculation and innuendo. It is
too much of a good story to leave alone. But then, maybe the whole truth
would have hurt him even more.