02 May

By Paul Whitelock

24 April 2024

Michael Portillo has gone from being a political hate figure to a cuddly presenter of TV travel programmes.

But how did it happen?

In the UK General Election of 1997, I well remember the TV coverage of the result in the Enfield Southgate constituency at around 3:10am on 2 May 1997. 

The Labour Party candidate Stephen Twigg defeated the sitting MP, Defence Secretary in the Thatcher and Major governments, Michael Portillo. 

The thunderous look on Portillo’s face was wonderful to behold. Had there ever been such an obnoxious politician? 


From villain to saint, from zero to hero; has there ever been such a dramatic conversion in the history of mankind?

Saul to Paul on the Road to Damascus comes close, I guess.

Michael Portillo, the epitome of a right-wing nasty politician, this son of a Spanish republican in exile from his homeland and a Scottish mother, has transformed himself into a well-liked travel presenter and occasional benign political commentator.

Nowadays Miguel Portillo lives in Carmona near Sevilla in Andalucía. He is a fluent Spanish speaker and has returned to live in the country of his father’s birth.      

The politician

Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo, known on his passport as Miguel Portillo y Blyth, was born in Bushy, Hertfordshire, in 1953 (currently aged 70) and was first elected to the House of Commons as an MP in 1984.

He became Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Margaret Thatcher and subsequently Employment Secretary. He was Defence Secretary in John Major’s government following the demise of “The Iron Lady”.

Portillo was forthright and controversial and not popular, but he was a Tory in a safe seat, the Enfield Southgate constituency. Until 1997 when he and most of the nation were “gobsmacked” when he was ousted by Labour candidate Stephen Twigg.

Nobody saw that coming.

The “train guy”

Photo courtesy of the BBC

He got a gig as the presenter of a travel programme using the train network, first in the UK and then abroad. There is a memorable programme where he travels on the Al Andalus Express and calls in on Ronda, the town where I have lived for over 15 years.

Photo of Portillo in Ronda courtesy of Charry TV

He has now moved on to be host of a new TV programme called 'Andalucía con Michael Portillo', a production by AMC Networks International in which he tours southern Spain, now his home.  

The “old” life

After starring, at the age of six, in a TV commercial for the drink Ribena, Michael Portillo obtained a first class degree in history from the University of Cambridge.

Photo of Portillo as a six-year-old courtesy of Shutterstock

He began his working life as a graduate trainee with the transport company Ocean Group plc, before joining the Conservative Research Department in 1976.

First elected to the House of Commons in 1984, Portillo served as a junior minister under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major, before entering the Cabinet in 1992 as Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

He was promoted to Secretary of State for Employment in 1994.
A Thatcherite and a Eurosceptic, he was seen as a likely challenger to Major during the 1995 Conservative Leadership election, but did not stand, and, as a reward, was subsequently promoted to Secretary of State for Defence.

Portillo unexpectedly lost the hitherto safe Conservative Enfield Southgate seat at the 1997 general election. This led to the coining of the expression "Portillo moment".

Returning to the Commons in the 1999 by-election in Kensington and Chelsea, Portillo rejoined the frontbench as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Standing for the leadership of the party in 2001, he came third behind Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke.

He retired from the House of Commonsand from active politics at the 2005 general election.

His membership of the Conservative Party has since lapsed.

His high profile led to constant attention from the media, including Private Eye, which mockingly referred to him as "Portaloo".

A New Life

Now living in Carmona, near Sevilla, Portillo has fashioned a new life. 

Photo of Carmona courtesy of Wikipedia

He is a well-respected travel presenter. In an interview given to journalist Rosa Palo of Diario Sur, published on Sunday 21 April 2024, he talks of his two lives, first as a politician and then as a TV presenter.

He reminisces about his father, Luis Gabriel Portillo, a republican politician in Spain, who sought exile in the UK as Franco came to power in 1939.

He also talks about his new television venture 'Andalucía con Michael Portillo', a production for Spanish TV in which he tours southern Spain.

Photo courtesy of YouTube

Fluent in Spanish he now lives in Carmona and enjoys his time with local friends. He plans to stay put when he retires.

“Me encanta la vida que tengo y no puedo pensar en variarla,” he says in his perfect Spanish. (I love the life I have and cannot imagine changing it).

The second programme in the Spanish TV series 'Andalucía con Michael Portillo' focused  on Ronda. It was broadcast on 30 April 2024.

El exministro británico Michael Portillo explora Ronda en su docuserie centrada en Andalucía (charrytv.com) 

© Paul Whitelock


A1 Translations
Charry TV
Diario Sur
Laura Caballero
Rosa Palo


1997 general election, A1 Translations, Andalucia, 'Andalucía con Michael Portillo’, Cambridge, Carmona, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Commons, Diario Sur, Enfield Southgate,  Eurosceptic, House of Commons, John Major, Kensington and Chelsea, Laura Caballero, Luis Portillo, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Portillo, Ocean Group plc, Paul Whitelock, Peterhouse, “Portaloo” "Portillo moment", Private Eye, Ribena, Ronda, Rosa Palo, Secretary of State for Defence, Secretary of State for Employment, Shutterstock, Stephen Twigg, Thatcherite, “The Iron Lady”, Wikipedia, YouTube

* The email will not be published on the website.