Last night’s This World on BBC2 was presented by Michael Portillo. Its subtitle was ‘Michael Portillo’s Great Euro Crisis’, which gave a fair indication of what it was about. The former Conservative Party Cabinet Minister duly wandered Europe in search of citizens who would choose their former currency over the Euro. Even the Greeks eschewed a return to the drachma, and overall Portillo drew a blank in finding anyone who would endorse his Eurosceptic views.
The question of the Euro is one thing, but watching Portillo made me wonder about the man himself. He is notorious for losing the Enfield Southgate seat in the 1997 general election to Stephen Twigg, a result that came to symbolize the extent of the Conservative collapse. Portillo, who was to return to politics to stand unsuccessfully for the Tory leadership in 2001, is also well-known for having had homosexual dalliances as a young man.
The revelations about his sexual past, allied with the infamous ‘Portillo moment’ – which came when the Enfield Southgate result was announced – could have done for a lesser man. The former resulted in a media frenzy as predictable as it was regrettable, the latter is hardly the sort of thing to shout about. But since his retirement from politics in 2005, Portillo has gone on to reinvent himself as a trustworthy commentator on public affairs and as a writer and/or presenter of TV and radio documentaries.
How has he done so? After all, the task of reinvention is not an easy one. Media personalities and entertainers arguably find it easier to do than many (unless they fall out of favour or fail to spot the next trend or zeitgeist) because they are always putting on an act. Serious politicians find it harder to pull off, although there have been some mighty reinventions in the past – and arguably they go with the most interesting politicians. Chief among them is surely Winston Churchill, who distilled his flirtation between the Liberals and Conservatives thus: “Any fool can rat, but I flatter myself that it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”
Other great re-inventors include Madonna, whose various reincarnations may not be to everyone’s taste, and John Profumo, a former brigadier who fell spectacularly from grace when, as an MP, he had an affair with a prostitute. To his credit, after his resignation began work as a volunteer cleaning toilets at Toynbee Hall, a charity based in the East End of London. He continued to do so for the rest of his life. This, and other charitable activities, helped to restore his reputation.
Often enough, politicians have to engineer reinvention after disgrace. Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer spring to mind. I would suspect that, for most people, the jury is out on whether they have successfully emerged from scandals of their own making, not least because, in today’s world, we have recorded information that can be replayed at any time. Similarly, we do not have formal forgiveness as part of our public life any more. In contrast, though, contemporary society offers a plethora of routes to reinvention. They include programmes of symbolic activity, stage-managed appearances, disappearances and manufactured ‘brand’ associations to things or people.
In Portillo’s case, another simple factor played a vital part in his reinvention: honesty. Just as he bore his electoral defeat with dignity, he dealt frankly with sexual issues that he knew would cause him problems, given both societal attitudes and, indeed, those of his own party. The fact that Portillo was prepared to be honest – in other words, to act ethically – stood him in good stead come his metamorphosis into the media.
The same is regrettably far from the case with so many other politicians who find themselves in desperate need of an alternative career.
Image courtesy of BBC iPlayer, where Portillo’s programme can be seen.