Michael Portillo’s appearance at the Tory spring conference in Harrogate this weekend will be proof of whether the dramatic start to his career as shadow chancellor has impressed the party faithful. Having seen how Gordon Brown began his career with a bang, and stunning Treasury officials by handing control of interest rates to the Bank of England, the returned darling of the right was determined to match him. And he has performed a series of policy u-turns that have left both opponents and supporters stunned. He started by using his first Treasury questions to back the new independence of the Bank of England and its Monetary Policy Committee. Then he turned years of Conservative policy on its head by saying a future Tory government would not scrap the minimum wage. And while his leader William Hague was not looking, he was caught undermining the party’s tax guarantee. Many people think this pledge to cut taxes as a proportion of national income, was inflexible and a recipe for embarrassment or disaster. Hague did not seem pleased and soon afterwards was restating the tax guarantee he had cooked up with Portillo’s lacklustre predecessor Francis Maude. Then there was the little wobble on the euro, when one day the new MP for Kensington and Chelsea was apparently watering down Tory opposition to the single currency, and not long afterwards was adopting an even more absolutist policy than his party leader. Last week’s Budget gave him even more scope to demonstrate his independence from Hague. Opposition leaders’ initial response to the financial package was to attack it as profligate and ‘smoke and mirrors’. But Portillo endorsed the extra public spending on the National Health Service and schools. The reception Portillo receives at the spring conference will show on which side of that divide the Tory rank and file stand.
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