The fun of the great `what if'

POLITICAL debate often centres on "what-ifs" – the science of alcohol-induced, pointless alternative scenarios to what actually did happen in history.What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed in 1963?; or if the SDP-Liberal Alliance had finished second in 1983; or if Michael Portillo hadn't lost his seat in 1997?This last counterfactual gives rise to the title for an intriguing compilation Prime Minister Portillo and other things that never happened*.

POLITICAL debate often centres on "what-ifs" – the science of alcohol-induced, pointless alternative scenarios to what actually did happen in history.

What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed in 1963?; or if the SDP-Liberal Alliance had finished second in 1983; or if Michael Portillo hadn't lost his seat in 1997?

This last counterfactual gives rise to the title for an intriguing compilation Prime Minister Portillo and other things that never happened*. It's an odd title – why are metropolitan-based political commentators so infatuated with Portillo that they believe his premiership is the most important thing not to have happened since World War I?

The scenario is this. He holds his Enfield-Southgate seat in 1997 in the great Labour landslide. John Major quits, Portillo wins the Tory leadership contest and in the 2001 General Election, the Tories – on the back of Labour's incompetence over the handling of Foot-and-Mouth – squeak home by a majority of three to propel our hero into Downing Street.


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Although the Conservative Party would not be in the mess it is at the moment, it's hardly the life changing event the anthology compilers Duncan Brack and Iain Dale would have us believe.

Chelmsford West MP Simon Burns has contributed a section in the book devoted to his fixation with the Kennedy clan by posing the counterfactual: What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed?

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Mr Burns does not hold the same simpering attitude to the Republican Party in the United States as virtually all of his Tory colleagues. He's a Democrat Kennedy groupie, who clearly believes the world would have been a far better and safer place had JFK not died in Dallas.

He argues the Vietnam war would not have happened, there would have been a more cohesive approach to civil rights and poverty in the United States, America would have been spared Richard Nixon and the poisoning of the body politic by Watergate, and the Kennedy brothers could have succeeded each other in the White House until 1984.

And the answer to the poser of Labour being eclipsed by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983? Nine years later, the Alliance's Shirley Williams defeats Margaret Thatcher's successor John Major at the polls to become Britain's second female prime minister. She is joined in co-alition government by new Tory leader Kenneth Clarke, and is succeeded as Alliance leader and prime minister in 1997 by Tony Blair, with Gordon Brown head of the Labour opposition.

Open another bottle of claret folks and answer the obvious counterfactual missing from this book: what if Neil Kinnock had defeated John Major to become prime minister in 1992?

My bet is that Black Wednesday would have still happened, dispelling the myth that Labour was fiscally competent, the Tories would have won the 1997 election by a landslide and . . . Michael Portillo would now be prime minister!

Cheers.

*Prime Minister Portillo and other things that never happened is published by Politico's, price £16.99

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