How joyous and unusual to see a happy former politician, so I ask the relaxed and content Michael Portillo, perhaps unfairly as it’s only 10am and we meet for a late breakfast, if he’d fancy a green fairy, an absinthe based, sugar-suffused drink which is one of the faintly exotic treats he enjoys on the first of his continental railway journeys which follow four he’s made in Britain. He chuckles, but declines.
We meet at London’s Cinnamon Club near his home in Pimlico, a short walk from the House of Commons. “Do you know that Andrew Mitchell [the former Conservative Chief Whip accused of swearing at police] set off on his bicycle to the gates of Downing Street on that fateful day from here? A historic building,” he says, grinning.
In his former ministerial career – Transport, Employment and Defence – Portillo had a faintly sinister air, with his thick lips, saturnine expression, bouffant hair, a male Cruella de Vil, and foreign, too, with a Spanish father, Luis [a refugee republican from the Spanish civil war] and Scottish mother, Cora. He even added ‘Xavier’ as a Christian name. [A woman constituent asked if he was an “exchange politician”.]
Since retiring from politics in 2005 he has transformed himself, at 59, from unlovable politician into convivial presenter of a variety of programmes, from BBC4’s Dinner with Portillo to a Wagner documentary, living for a week as a single parent on benefits, and as a regular on the BBC’s late-night political programme This Week.
“It’s such a release not to be a politician, and I no longer belong to any party. I’ve managed to relax completely. My mannerisms could be irritating but there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m vain. I worry how I look. I set out to lose a couple of stone because I don’t think it’s right for viewers to see an overweight presenter. I feel much better for it.
“I enjoy people recognising me because they’re normally friendly, and we’re trying to produce things people like, so it’s good to have feedback. I don’t mind being a bit of a showman. As a presenter you have to speak with artificial energy and enthusiasm.
“But I still feel like an intruder, although I’m relaxed, whereas I wasn’t in politics. I loved it, but was always under stress, particularly dealing with the media. Every interview is aggressive and you’re always on the back foot. Politicians are represented as making decisions that are evil or stupid, or as out of touch. It’s not surprising most of them appear cagey and defensive. At least they meet real people in their constituencies. It’s possible to be a journalist and not leave central London. They should remove the beams from their own eyes.”
After he left Spain, Portillo’s father married Cora, daughter of a prosperous Kirkcaldy linen mill owner, and they settled in north London. Portillo went to the Harrow Country School for boys and won a scholarship to Peterhouse, Cambridge where he gained a first class degree in history. His first job was with a shipping company before he moved to the conservative research department in 1976 for three years, becoming MP for Enfield Southgate in 1984, a seat he lost to much jubilation in the 1997 election.
Channel 4 viewers voted his humiliation as their third favourite moment in 20th-century history. He remarked wryly it was like “eating a bucketful of s**t in public. I was disappointed, of course, but relieved to be out of a party that would fight each other tooth and nail and where I’d be asked to stand for the leadership.”
He says his greatest political achievement was refusing to close the Settle to Carlisle railway line when he was Transport Minister in 1988. A modest, even sad, legacy?
“Be cautious. You’ll have railway enthusiasts howling with protest. Looking back, it’s difficult to know what I did achieve because the process is so collegiate. There’s compromise and change. Obviously some people go into politics to control others, but the success of the democratic system is that those who get in reflect the population: a few rogues, a few saints, and a lot in between. I have friends from those days with whom I stay in touch, but most of my best ones are from earlier in life.”
He adds he was unaware of how much he was disliked “until the day of my defeat when it became apparent. It was an unsettling time anyway and I felt very lost, but television came to my rescue. I was approached to make a ten-minute film, One Foot in the Past, and that led to a railway journey across Spain filmed in 1998. It was emotional because I was recalling my father’s role in the Spanish civil war, interviewing his brothers who fought on the other side.”
He had an unlikely TV baptism when he was eight, starring in an advertisement for Ribena. “The lady living opposite us was a talent scout. After 12 other auditions my parents and I agreed it wasn’t going very far – we didn’t even have a car so it made travelling to auditions an imposition.”
In 1999, the year he returned to Parliament as MP for Kensington and Chelsea, he admitted he’d had “homosexual experiences as a young man”. “I don’t think it was a brilliant idea to say that, but it doesn’t figure in my radar now.”
I assume he feared blackmail. “Not at all. I just thought it might be a good time to deal with it. “
He and his wife Carolyn have no children. “I’ve not missed them. You make choices, but to some extent life takes it course. I don’t regret my routes, which is easy for me to say because I have a delightful life and love what I do for a living, which is one of the greatest luxuries.”
This week in Great Continental Railway Journeys, he goes from London to Monte Carlo, stopping in Paris, La Ciotat, and Nice in the first of five 60-minute travels using George Bradshaw’s 1913 Continental Guide. He speaks of the series with infectious, but nervous, enthusiasm. “We’ve taken a formula that was half an hour at 6.30 and converted it to an hour at nine. I hope they’re jolly as well as combining travelogue with history. I’m on tenterhooks to see if viewers share my pleasure.
“It was a fascinating era. The French lead in technology, figurative arts, cinematography. Gustav Klimt is painting very erotic paintings in Vienna, Einstein is in Berlin, white-tie balls in Vienna, electric trains in Switzerland. Yet empires are falling and there’s this huge shadow of the First World War. The horrible irony is that it was made possible by trains – all the powers planned their mobilisation around train timetables. And it ends with an armistice in a railway carriage.
“The joy is that our tremendous research team discover things to do with railways which combine with other aspects of early 20th-century life. He cites his visit to La Ciotat on the French Riviera, where the Lumière brothers filmed a train going into the station. “It became one of the first moving images presented to a paying public, and it’s just perfect.”
In Paris he remarks on how early health and safety hampered British industry. “We required someone to walk in front of a motor vehicle waving a red flag. The French didn’t and that launched them into massive superiority with cars. And we think of health and safety as a modern madness! These journeys are in no sense political, but I’m allowed to make contentious points and no one tries to dumb me down.
Baron Haussmann created wonderful Parisian boulevards, but also swept away vast tracts of homes. It couldn’t happen in England. The Royal Avenue, in my old Chelsea constituency, was intended to stretch from Kensington’s Royal Hospital to Kensington Palace but it didn’t get done because people are in the way. Paris and Vienna have imperial architecture. London is democratic.
“I’m Eurosceptic and there’s a little mention of that in one programme. The Tory party is torn apart by Europe, which is immensely destructive. Possibly being half Spanish I believe each nation has a different culture and it’s difficult to fuse them together.”
Maybe, as he observes the apparent shambles of modern politics, he’d like to return. “Not for a moment. That was then. This is now. It would be quite a morbid reflection on one’s death bed to think I only did one thing in life.”
Michael Portillo presents Great Continental Railway Journeys – tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2