Michael Portillo on going from politics to riding the rails

“Having just been in politics and all that, I think I was quite zipped up, quite uptight, and I certainly am not now”

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Michael Portillo is a fan of my dress. More specifically, the colour of my dress. We meet in the grip of the August heatwave and I’m sporting citrus yellow. “You’re certainly wearing a delicious bright colour today,” he says, when we meet to discuss his new series of Great Continental Railway Journeys. “I’m not sure I have exactly that shade and I feel I may have to go and look for it.”

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To clarify: my dress is the colour of a neon canary. Or, as someone once unkindly pointed out, a headache. It is not the sort of shade one would expect a 63-year-old former Conservative MP turned railway enthusiast to go for. But then, Portillo has never been what you might call average.

As a politician, serving first under Margaret Thatcher (“terrifically stimulating”) and then in John Major’s cabinet, he never quite fitted in. He was half-Spanish, for a start, with the distinctly non-Tory sounding middle names Denzil and Xavier. His father, Luis, had fought on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War and was later exiled to the UK for his left-wing beliefs.

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Portillo’s upbringing in Bushey, Hertfordshire, was imbued with his father’s politics. “My parents ran Labour party committee rooms from the house,” he says. “I used to act as a teller for the Labour party elections as a child.”

He switched allegiances at Cambridge University in the 1970s because the Labour Party seemed “washed-up” and the Tories “cutting-edge”. His parents’ reaction was “somewhere between amused and exasperated. It’s always been a pretty good joke in my family.” At Peterhouse, where he won a scholarship and read history, he had some homosexual dalliances. He was refreshingly open about this in a 1999 interview with The Times, but his honesty came at a cost.

Portillo never won the Conservative leadership, even though he stood for it in 2001. Was it because Norman Tebbit once remarked that Portillo was not “a normal, family man” (he and his wife of over 30 years, Carolyn, have no children)? “I think it’s the sort of remark that is more regretted by the speaker than the person it’s aimed at,” Portillo says.

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Michael Portillo running for the Tory leadership

After leaving politics in 2005, he seamlessly reinvented himself as a television presenter, fronting the BBC’s phenomenally successful Great Railway Journeys programmes. The premise is deceptively simple: each episode features Portillo inter-railing around Britain, Europe and America delivering jolly asides to camera about some interesting titbit of local history, often while wearing an eye-catching salmon-pink jacket (he’s got quite a collection in a dazzling array of colours).

The fifth series of Great Continental Railway Journeys begins this week on BBC2, and there have already been seven of its British counterpart.


The most scenic Great Continental Railway Journeys


The viewers absolutely love Portillo. He’s not quite sure why he took to television so easily, but it was a liberation of sorts. When he started out in front of the camera, “having just been in politics and all that, I think I was quite zipped up, quite uptight, and I certainly am not now.”

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Being an MP, he says, was “very stressful… The feeling that whatever you do or whatever you say might land you on the front page of the Daily Mirror in the morning is a terrific discipline.”

How did he deal with it?

“Badly. I think one of the reasons I was so unpopular [is that] I was thought to be very arrogant. I may have been, but I was very stressed, and I think on television if you look stressed people tend to be against you, whereas to be on television as a presenter, it’s very easy not to look stressed because you’re saying your own thing, you can have another take and so on and so on. It’s not like being Humphrys-ed or Paxo-ed.”

And it’s true that a lot of people saw Portillo the MP – however unfairly – as embodying a certain kind of supercilious vanity. It reflected how the Tory party at large was perceived in the run-up to the 1997 election, which Tony Blair and New Labour won by a landslide.

When Portillo lost his Enfield Southgate seat that year in a huge 17.4 per cent swing to Labour, it was so shocking that it became known as “the Portillo moment”. He insists he’s not haunted by the phrase. “I think when I lost my seat it was voted by Guardian readers and Channel 4 viewers as their third favourite moment of the 20th century… I joke that I beat the assassination of President Ceausescu into fourth place, but I can’t remember whether that’s really true.” (Actually, he beat the death of Princess Diana and the fall of the Berlin Wall into third place in C4’s TV’s Greatest Moments in 1999.)

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US Secretary of Defense William Cohen and British Defense Secretary Michael Portillo

When he first started dipping his toe into TV presenting, he had a hard time dissociating himself from his Thatcherite past. “Quite a lot of journalists can’t quite get over the fact that I was a Tory politician, so they feel – this is my interpretation – they have to begin with something pretty negative.”


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When he filmed the pilot for Great British Railway Journeys eight years ago, the first scene was of him getting out of the train at Swindon and admiring the railway works. “I’m walking down the street and I vox-pop someone; I stop and have a chat and I say, ‘Ooh, very interesting buildings,’ And she says, ‘Oh yeah. Railway works shut down by Margaret Thatcher.’ The first programme! So, I’m immediately, ‘Ooh, well, let’s change the subject…’”

He says he’s “gregarious” by nature, which is why he’ll never write a book, because it would be too solitary: “If I spend an evening alone, I’m kind of pacing the room.” 
In politics, Portillo had friends from across the political divide. “The difficulty was always having friendships with people who agreed with me [politically],” he says, rather brilliantly.

It’s probably why he gets on so well with the Labour MP Diane Abbott, his regular sparring partner on BBC2’s political discussion show, The Week. In fact, the two of them go way back: when Portillo was 14 and at the Harrow County School for Boys, he attempted to produce a film of Macbeth in which Abbott, then attending the girls’ school, was cast as Lady Macbeth.

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Sparring partners: Dianne Abbott and Michael Portillo

“Unfortunately we didn’t raise enough money from our jumble sales to complete the movie,” he says now. “It was very expensive. It had a budget of £240 or something. So the film unfortunately never saw the light of day.

“There is a screen test of Diane Abbott… I remember we asked her to read that moment [from Romeo and Juliet] where Juliet looks forward to losing her virginity and she says, “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, towards Phoebus’ lodging”. In other words, she’s longing for night to come. And somewhere there is Diane Abbott reading this magnificent piece.”

Frustratingly, he can’t recall where the tape might be exactly, but he says he always remembered Abbott.

“Of course. How could one not?”

Still, his fondness for her doesn’t extend to any warm or fuzzy feelings about the embattled Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, in whose shadow cabinet she now serves. What does Portillo think of what’s happening over the other side of the House of Commons benches?

“Very satisfactory.”

Because they’re fighting themselves into oblivion?

“Well, they’re fighting themselves away from winning the election, it seems.”

He was a supporter of Brexit. The latest series of Great Continental Railway Journeys sees Portillo plotting his route according to George Bradshaw’s Railway Guide from 1913, when Europe was on the brink of the First World War.

“I don’t think Brexit is as epoch-making as 1913, but it will be significant for Britain, it will be significant for Europe, but how, exactly, I think is just too early to tell.”

He’s clearly happy in his current métier, but I can’t help wondering if there is a nagging sense of not quite having made it. Every politician is ambitious, but Portillo was perhaps more so than most. Does he regret never having become Prime Minister?

“Gosh, no,” he says. “Not for a moment. No, I feel very lucky.” Why?

“I think it was a burden of responsibility that I wasn’t cut out for, really. And I think, you know, the process is largely self-selecting. On the whole, the people who aren’t meant to make it, don’t make it. You need a particular sort of resilience.

“David Cameron, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher were absolutely cut out for it. And part of that was how relaxed they could be under extraordinary pressure. When Blair was PM I’d meet him sometimes socially and the headlines would be terrible, everything would be going terribly badly, but there he was laughing and relaxed. And I’d say, ‘Prime Minister, I can’t believe it.’ And he’d say, ‘You know, Michael, it’s just such a privilege to have this job, such a privilege.’ Roaring away. I mean, it’s a fantastic disposition to have… We’ll see whether Theresa May has that or not. She probably does.”

He talks with perfect equanimity. I really do think he’s telling the truth, rather than simply trying to put a brave face on it. Television has given Portillo a new lease of life and a more relaxed sense of himself. It’s made him comfortable in his own skin – and in his flamboyantly coloured jackets.

You might also like: The most scenic of Portillo’s Great Continental Railway Journeys


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