Michael Portillo, keynote speaker at the Textile Services Association (TSA) National Congress, addressed diversity, racism, warned the industry about merely regarding the Government as “an irritation”, deplored short term contracts, accused the Government of being “appallingly bad at spending money”, condemned its arbitrary decision-making during the pandemic and questioned whether “textile services” got the message across to the public about what the industry is really all about. Oh, and he had some interesting things to say about Margaret Thatcher and the present tenant of Number 10, Boris Johnson.
Portillo, in his own words, a “former future Prime Minister” told Congress delegates that he was “pathetically grateful” for the invitation from the TSA to be keynote speaker. However, since that memorable ‘Portillo Moment’ caught on camera when he lost his Enfield Southgate seat, his Ministerial position and his career when Labour swept to power on 2 May 1997, he has been pretty busy.
“A ‘Portillo Moment’,” he explained ruefully, “means eating a bucket of shit in public…losing everything in one humiliating moment.”
Since then, he says he has made literally “thousands” of films and programmes, makes regular appearances in theatres and is the face of a slew of Great British Railway Journeys made alongside a copy of Bradshaw’s Handbook, first published in 1861. This tome, when not being referred to on screen, is carted around in a metal Thomas the Tank Engine child’s lunch box by a 22-year-old assistant “rather like a young civil servant who used to follow me around with official boxes and papers. Symmetry,” he mused.
Anyway, the mention of Bradshaw prompted comment on the British Empire and its legacy today in terms of diversity and racism among other topics. “In 1864, Bradshaw said London was the greatest City the world has ever seen…the British Empire the greatest on the face of the earth…bigger than the Roman Empire had ever been. Britain was first with the industrial revolution, first with railways and had a total absence of colonial guilt. It was a triumph of industrialisation producing things cheaply on a grand scale.
“Now we are debating colonialism, slavery, repression of indigenous people by white Europeans. The British Empire was,” he believes, of its time and “built on good intentions – bringing Christianity to other nations was seen as a boon and a move towards both civilisation and salvation. Quite probably we still live in the shadow of the British Empire and find it natural to see white faces in management, Asian faces on the shop floor. But is it institutional racism? Or a mindset that has yet to be erased? The young women I work with in media have very different views. I sometimes don’t always agree with them but find it refreshing.”
For example, he explains: “Combating climate change, I worry that things are not being driven in the most logical way…are we getting into commitments that are not realistic…not business common sense? But it is absolutely worth listening to the opinions of people we disagree with…and generationally. I have been learning a lot from younger people…assumptions are very different.
“Diversity is important and will become more so and it is an issue where an industry can be badly caught out. Look at Yorkshire Cricket Club where a set of attitudes or ‘banter’ has led to its reputation being shattered. Now England will not play at Headingly. It is easy to be too relaxed and not see the dangers.”
He believes that having passed through the era of the pandemic, as in the aftermath of a World War, there is now an understandable desire for the world to be different and he says some of this desire is positive and some carries dangers. “There are ripples of this in one thing after another. The recent scandals in Parliament have called for a reassessment of outside interests and many have gained from those endeavours. People want things to be different. Ethnic and gender diversity will become even more important going forward, I see signs of it everywhere – and it is very difficult to deal with.
Illustrating the point, Portillo says, TV finds diversity incredibly difficult to deal with. “Maybe the BBC feels happy with itself with its high-profile presenters of Asian and African heritage but in 13 years in TV I have worked with a huge range of people and only two of them were of Asian background and one of African,” he said. He believes this lack of diversity is because now the days of being employed by the BBC and associated in-house apprenticeship schemes have gone and people are now working on short term contracts. “They have to live in London, and need to be able to commute to High Wycombe or wherever because of tax breaks for companies outside the M25.” The workers they attract, he reckons are the customers of the “‘bank of mum and dad’ because who else could afford to live there?
“And nobody has said this lack of diversity is caused by short term contracts. I suspect in your industry there are structure problems, too, because I see before me mostly white and male faces.”
Portillo went on to say that he is not happy with Government changes during the pandemic. “Limitation is non-existent. During the pandemic Government did things we never expected to see (not since World War II) – they forbade travel, stopped businesses opening, people congregating…to open a theatre was illegal…all extraordinary…
“We have just seen a Conservative Chancellor announce a high spending budget. I think the Government has established permanently a bigger role in our lives, has found out how far its powers can extend. Some people were rewarded for having businesses closed down others were not. It was completely abitrary.
“So, what does this mean for textile care? Be very aware that the Government is not just an irritation in the background. It can turn off your business…and it did. However, it is unlikely to happen again…although there could be a pandemic of another sort and government now has the template. Who knows if there is a new strain developing that is resistant to vaccines?”
Portillo stressed: “It is extra important that launderers explain what you do and why what you do is so important. Government understands the language of key industries. Who has said laundry was a key industry? I have never heard that it is. Laundry is a subject that could be well understood and provoke a positive public response…hygiene is such a driver now. “Laundry is making things clean, hygienic, sterile. It seems a very important subject to which the public would respond.
“Is Textile Services Assocation the right name? I had no idea who you were. It meant nothing to me, and still the title does not suggest who you are. Why are you called this? Do you want to hide? Head below the parapet? Is laundry infra dig? I advise you to have a better name that tells people who you are. There is nothing to be ashamed of about laundry.”
Portillo admitted to being disappointed at where we are now. “It has been demonstrated that this Government spends money appallingly badly. Test and trace was paying people £1100 a and many of them couldn’t work [because the system failed] and were sitting at home watching Netflix. The Government doesn’t review and it doesn’t learn lessons. The textile care industry should be very much on its guard against this Government.”
• Of course, questions had to be asked about Portillo’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. He said they had been friendly and as her advisor he worked closely with her. He told a story of a recent documentary he had been shooting about meerkats in the Kalahari desert. “Meerkats are dictatorial bastards,” he said. “A dominant female will handbag her way to the top and drive other females out, and may even eat the pups of other females. The female testosterone level rises and that of all the males falls. I have a better understanding of Margaret Thatcher’s Government than I ever had before.”
• On lobbying. Portillo advised that TSA needs be in touch with government always. Pre-existing relationships are more likely to get a response to crises. He advised that key relationships should be made not with a Minister as one might imagine, but with a junior person in the relevant department that sponsors your industry. “Look for a Grade 7 civil servant who has not much in their portfolio apart from laundry. You can then be a big person in their life…where you would be a tiny part of a Minister’s load.” He added that for individual businesses, constituency MPs are “quite important”. Routinely be in touch and get your MP to visit your premises, he advised.
• It is a myth that Margaret Thatcher was anti rail, according to Portillo. “I was Minister of Transport in her Government and there was heavy investment in rail at that time…The Jubilee Line and Heathrow Extension, East Coast Line electrification, Channel Tunnel was a rail project. She was not actually keen on privatising the railways. That actually came in under John Major.” He added that when they were privatised it was not in the way it was envisaged at first “and of course it is being undone now”.
• According to Portillo, Margaret Thatcher could be very conservative with a small ‘c’ and very cautious. She felt it was out of the question to privatise the Royal Mail “because she thought it had something to do with the Royal Family. She mostly had to be dragged into privatisation. It wasn’t one of her foundation core beliefs”.
• What is the best Great British Railway Journey? For Portillo it is getting on the West Highland Line, moving along to the dining care, pressing down haggis and whisky and “then to my bunk rotten with haggis and whisky to eventually wake up in London Euston – a great railway journey”.
• Conservative Party and sleaze. Portillo admits to being depressed about the past few months after two well respected Conservative MPs died and then the sleaze scandal broke. “When James Brokenshaw died nobody had a bad word to say about him…then Sir David Amess was murdered. People were saying what marvellous people they were. And that was a good thing. Now none of that is remembered with the current Owen Paterson and Sir Geoffrey Cox allegations. Now all are tarred with this sleaze brush. I don’t know how you get back from that. Labour will want to run Tory sleaze stories as much as it can. It’s their best chance of winning the next election (I don’t think they will). It is a great story for the media and there is a lot of public feeling. It is a symptom of the demand for renewal. Now they have to prove a negative. How do you prove you are not corrupt?”
• Will Boris Johnson be Prime Minister next year? “He is an election winner and that is all he is. He is not a winning Prime Minister – not much of policy mind, no headfor ideas or policies and he is not especially reliable. He lacks many Prime Ministerial qualities – except charisma. He is an election winner. One thing he has done, though, is to end 50 years of internecine way in the Party with getting Brexit done.”
“Do you like him?” asked a voice from the audience? “Oh, yes,” said Portillo.
• “There can only be true friends across Parties not in Parties. People in your own Party are rivals on a daily basis. People behind me were longing for me to fail so they could fill the vacancy. With the Labour Party, we are only rivals every five years at the General Election. I had a warm relationship with David Blunkett and Alan Johnson and Liz Kendall are dear friends, ” said Portillo.
• “Prime Minister’s Questions process almost medieval but strangely effective.”