Formerly a Conservative MP, Michael Portillo is now a broadcaster and political pundit. Here, he talks to BLM about views on Britishness, business and the ‘formidable’ Tony Blair.
Michael is also the 2019 South West Business Leader Awards host. Find out more about the event here.
How did you end up working in politics?
As a child I lived in a very political household. My father was a refugee from the Spanish Civil War and my mother was active in left-wing politics.
As a teenager, I had a poster of Harold Wilson on my bedroom wall. My politics changed though due to the situation in the country at the time, and in 1975, the Conservative Party was forward-looking, dynamic; and had appointed Britain’s first female party leader.
After reading history at Cambridge University I went to work in industry for Ocean Transport and Trading, before I had an opportunity to join the Conservative Research Department in 1976.
Can you elaborate on the political situation in the UK at this time?
In 1976 the Labour government was in danger of collapse but managed to hang on until 1979. At the end of that period, I was responsible for briefing Margaret Thatcher, which was fascinating as I was seeing the metamorphosis of the leader of the opposition into the Prime Minister.
How did you become an MP?
After working for Margaret Thatcher, I worked for Nigel Lawson – who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer. A year into this role I won a by-election in Enfield Southgate, which I won before famously losing the seat in 1997.
What was your opinion of Margaret Thatcher?
I liked her very much and I found her to be an inspiring leader. The more political leaders I’ve seen since her have only reinforced that view.
I believe I was fortunate in my relationship with her as I was very junior. In her dealings with her colleagues she was often exacerbating but that didn’t matter to me as I found it fun. Whereas ‘big beasts’ like Michael Heseltine, Geoffrey Howe and Ken Clarke would often become upset with how they were being treated.
Would you describe Margaret Thatcher as pro-business?
Margaret was very pro-business. Her husband Dennis was a businessman and her father was a grocer, so she had some grounding in this area.
I would say she was more business-orientated than any Prime Minister has been since, but she was also very cautious and people forget she was in office for many years presiding over a top-rate of income tax of 60 per cent. It was several years before she changed this (in 1987 she cut the top rate of income tax to 40 per cent).
Some industry leaders didn’t always see her as pro-business though, and in the first two years of her premiership unemployment was zooming up. Factories were closing and the economy wasn’t performing well. I recall 365 economists writing to the papers saying that her economic policies could not possibly succeed.
Industry wasn’t happy with her fully until after 1981. From then she oversaw a terrific recovery in the UK economy and boosted the UK’s self-esteem and standing in the world.
Who is the most formidable opponent you came up against in politics?
Tony Blair was an extraordinary politician. When he was Prime Minister, we couldn’t lay a glove on him and we could never find a narrative we could use to challenge him.
He was excellent in the House of Commons and had a lightness of touch. He was also self-deprecating and carried the burden of office well.
Another very impressive person is Michael Heseltine. I disagreed with him on most things, but he was charismatic and talented and almost unique in that he is somebody who has been successful both in business and politics.
Why do you feel it is important for politicians to support business?
The prosperity of the country depends on the innovation and enterprise that comes from business.
I’ve been a sole trader since 2005 and I’ve never seen relations between business and politics at a lower ebb.
This isn’t good and the Conservative Party needs to shoulder some responsibility. But then the alternative government is the Labour Party, which is run by avowed anti-capitalists.
On this subject of Jeremy Corbyn, what impact do you feel a government led by him would have?
I think it would have a negative impact on the UK and business conditions. As a fairly prosperous sole trader I feel I’d be caught in the crosshairs. Labour say they are looking to tax just the super-rich, but this would result in them taxing relatively high earners too and history has shown that this policy results in the tax take being reduced and lower income people suffering.
I think many people would find this dispiriting. Would they continue to want to work in the UK in this environment?
Could you realistically see the destruction of the Labour and Conservative party, in the future?
I work in political punditry and It’s never been this hard to predict what’s going to happen, but anything could happen. My guess is that if the Conservative Party settles the European question, the issue will fade away again and we’ll reach normality.
If the issue is left lying around though for the next three years, I think a pro-Brexit party will get millions of votes at the next election.
Moving on to another topic, in your opinion why is the UK and US alliance important?
The Trans-Atlantic Alliance has historically brought very good things to the UK. If I were deciding whether to attend a state banquet with China’s Xi Jinping or Donald Trump, I would consider this fundamental question.
Do I want to live in a world that is quite like the USA – built on innovation, freedom and enterprise – or would I like to live in Mr Xi’s world?
How do we solve the issue in the UK of the regions not performing as well as London and the South East?
I would argue that connectivity is at the heart of the issue, which is why I’m in favour of HS2 as it connects the regions to the South East.
The issue is that the British have this exceptional view – that is different from every country in the world- that we can be immune from major change and that we can get by on 19thcentury infrastructure. Britain is the only developed country that isn’t embracing high-speed rail.
It’s the same with the Heathrow expansion. The idea that the Mayor of London is against expanding the airport is insane. Where else in the world would this happen?
Why do other countries build big infrastructure, but we don’t?
It’s a sort of British decadence and at its heart is something of which I do approve, which is the belief that government works for the citizens; so that as a nation we can stifle projects and plans we don’t approve of.
But this culture can be frustrating when it stops us building big infrastructure projects. This bloody-mindedness and belief that ‘my home is my castle’ is a good thing but it produces a side effect that your life must not be disturbed in any way, even if it’s for the common good.
The stark reality is that two of our capitals (London and Cardiff) are not connected by electric railway and in any other country in the world, this would be inconceivable.
To conclude, what would be your message during this political climate to businesses?
I don’t think most people will see any difference whether we leave the EU or not. If we do leave, then big businesses may have to alter the way they operate but they will adapt.
What has been interesting is that there has been no word from the City recently. I think this tells us that people are just getting on with things. None of the facts of life will change – people will still want new products and innovation.