Training for politics with Portillo

Michael Portillo Train The last time I saw a politician on stage in Leamington, it was Tony Benn. Can’t remember what he was talking about much as I was working, but the bits I did catch, I didn’t agree with. What with me being a bit of a leftie, that was a surprise.

Spotting that ex-Tory, Michael Portillo was appearing locally, you might expect that I would have run a mile but since his post-MP career has involved talking about trains a lot then perhaps less so. Truth is, in his post parliament career, he comes across as very interesting so I tootled along for entertainment.

Entertaining, it certainly was.

Portillo appeared on stage and stayed put without a break for 90 minutes. For the first hour he anecdoted through both the political and media work. Kicking off with some old jokes he then moved on to his first job in the commons, briefing Margaret Thatcher every morning at 7am on the days news so she could be prepared for her early press conference.

From then, he seemed to have a ringside seat on many major moments of her career both as civil servant and then MP. This carried on right up to her resignation.

After this he had a memorable moment in the 1997, losing his seat to Stephen Twig on live television – the highest profile scalp claimed by Labour in their landslide win.

Although there was a return to parliament a couple of years later, it was then his work on television that took over the talk.

We learned how the series Great British Railway Journeys came about. Apparently he had presented a program on Great Railway Journeys in 2002 using his Spanish heritage as a guide for the trip. Eight years later, the producers of the new series remembered this and offered him the gig as presenter – There have now been 6 series, 2 set in Europe and another due next year set in the USA.

I was interested in the mechanics of the filming and was pleased when someone asked the question in the half-hour Q&A that ended the evening. This was much like a literary festival session except that people generally got on with asking questions. The topics shuttled between politics and media stuff but he fielded each with aplomb.

The question that interested me most related to the modern trend for MPs to rise through the ranks of working for other MPs. To my mind it fills parliament with people who have no experience of the “real world” outside the Westminster bubble. Portillo explained that these people were simply better trained than others when it came to appearing in front of party selection panels. They knew the right answers, they know how parliament works and so they are the ones who stand out from the crowd.

Anyway, an excellent evening. Maybe it’s true that you get more right wing as you get older or maybe it’s just that I’m happy to listen to anyone reasonable and entertaining. It’s odd that I have no interest in biographies but will happily go to an event where someone could easily be promoting one.

There was certainly a glimpse into the world of Westminster and it’s given me some ideas. After all, we have a young(ish) character working for a minister. Perhaps we could map out a future for him as we traverse the story arc of our novels.

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