Belfast Telegraph

The truth about me and Portillo

By Gail Walker

An Ulster mum-of-two who became the lover of former Cabinet minister Michael Portillo today breaks her silence on their extraordinary nine-year friendship.

An Ulster mum-of-two who became the lover of former Cabinet minister Michael Portillo today breaks her silence on their extraordinary nine-year friendship.

Rachel Johnston (31), reveals how she first befriended Portillo by writing to him after agoraphobia had turned her into a recluse. And, nearly a decade later, when her ex-partner took his own life, she says it was Portillo (52), who once again offered her support and encouragement.

The couple's affair hit the headlines last weekend after a Sunday newspaper printed photographs of Rachel leaving married Portillo's room in a south Belfast hotel, where he was attending a business conference.

But today, Rachel says : "I just want to get the truth out there and to let people know that I am not the bad person I have been made out to be."

Michael and me...the Ulster mum in a tabloid frenzy

Rachel Johnston's world imploded when she was named as Michael Portillo's secret lover. But behind the shock headlines is the story of a young Ulster mum-of-two who has suffered huge personal heartbreak. In an exclusive interview Rachel (31) tells Features Editor Gail Walker how she is still in daily contact with the former Cabinet minister - and why she just wants to move on with her life.

When Rachel Johnston went to buy the papers last weekend she almost collapsed with shock. For there, emblazoned across the front page of the Sunday Mirror was a photo of herself in a basque top along with the headline, 'Portillo Cheating On Wife With Irish Beauty.'.

The Portillo referred to is, of course, Michael Portillo (52), former Defence Secretary, senior Tory and married man. The 'Irish Beauty' was ... none other than Rachel herself.

But the following day another tabloid was to bring an even worse instalment - the news was broken to readers that Sammuel Gill (32), her former partner and the father of her two small children, had killed himself last Christmas, apparently after Rachel left him.

Through a fatal combination of naivity, vulnerability and her own trustworthy nature, Rachel had fallen victim to, firstly, a damaging exposé and, secondly, what's known in the newspaper business as a hatchet job.

No one would blame the attractive 31-year-old if she intended to go to ground for the forseeable future - which is exactly what she intends to do after giving this, her one and only interview, to the Belfast Telegraph.

Rachel, who is also a Downtown Radio DJ, says she is only speaking out once - to put across her side of the story definitively and to try to salvage something of her reputation and self-esteem.

"I've been offered a lot of money to tell my story but I've turned it all down," she says.

"I just want to get the truth out there and to let people know that I am not the bad person I have been made out to be.

"I'm a good mother and I cherish my children. They are the most important things in the world to me.

"The past few days have been among the worst of my life. I've had to drop my children off at school and hold my head up, while people were staring at me. It's been dreadful."

Certainly, Rachel's story is an extraordinary one.

She admits that she has had a sexual relationship with Portillo, but she insists that when they met up last week at a Belfast hotel it was the first time and only time they had made love.

And she says that behind the brash, rather sordid headlines is a tale of a long and warm friendship between herself and the man she fondly refers to as 'Michael.'

For, astonishingly, when Rachel was in her early 20s and a virtual recluse who refused to step outside her parents' Millisle home because of her debilitating agoraphobia, it was Michael Portillo who she claims spent hours chatting to her by phone and writing her long letters.

She explains: "It's true that in the early 1990s I did have a correspondence with Michael.

"I was cooped up indoors, unable to go outside, and I'd started to do an A level in English literature to pass the time.

"Being honest about it, I fancied Michael and I wrote to him saying that as part of my studies I had to do a profile of a public figure. I asked him whether he would send me some photos of himself and also give me some information about a political career.

"I got a very formal letter back from him, but then we started to correspond on a more regular basis.

"Before I knew it he was starting to call me up and we began to really get to know each other very well. But it wasn't a sexual relationship.

"He did come to Belfast during that time, but he was Defence Secretary and had a lot of security around him, so we never actually met up.

"It was just a very supportive friendship. I told him about my agoraphobia, and while most people don't really understand what that means, he took time to find out. I'd also sent him some photos of myself."

But Rachel insists that when, aged 24, she started dating double-glazing worker Sammuel Gibbs - dad to her daughter Honor (six) and son Abraham (three) - she broke off all contact with Portillo.

"I started slowly trying to conquer my agoraphobia, setting up a self-help group and trying to venture outdoors on occasion," she explains.

"And initially I also found my relationship with Sammuel provided me with support. Initially most of our meetings took place at my parents' house because I refused to go outside, but eventually I was able to go for short drives in the car with him."

TWO years later Rachel was expecting their first child and the couple moved into a £250,000 property in Millisle. And as her confidence grew she even started work at Downtown, where she does two weekly shows from 1-3am.

On the surface life seemed good for the young couple, but Rachel says the reality was often very different.

Today she feels that Sammuel's family may hold her partly responsble for his suicide. The couple had been separated for some months before his death and she did not attend his funeral, claiming that she "would not have been welcome."

She explains: "Although Sammuel and I were together for nearly seven years and had two children, our relationship was always rocky and I left him a few times during our relationship.

"I'd take the children and go and stay with my mum and dad or, at one point, I even got my own house. But even then he pleaded with me to come back to him and, in the end, I weakened."

Rachel claims she left Sammuel over his infidelity: "I know that he cheated on me on various occasions during our relationship. He would have gone out to play golf and then stayed out all night. I also saw sexual text messages and emails that he received."

And Rachel also insists that Sammuel appeared to have a predisposition to suicide.

"Sammuel was always telling everyone that he was going to kill himself," she says. "The first time I left him he took an overdose and had to have his stomach pumped.

"Right from the beginning of our relationship he was always threatening to kill himself. He always kept a rope in the car boot for that purpose. Other times he'd storm out of the house and say he was away to the garage to kill himself and I'd sit there shaking, not knowing whether I should ring the police or if it was just another example of him crying wolf."

Tragically Sammuel finally carried out his threat on December 10 last year, hanging himself in the home they had once shared.

Rachel and he had planned to marry the previous August, but she had walked out for good a few weeks before the ceremony was due to take place, after she says she received a 15-page letter from Sammuel's mistress.

"I was devastated," says Rachel. "I'd given Sammuel the benefit of the doubt and agreed to marry him, convinced that things would be better. I also hated being an unmarried mum and wanted to give my children some stability.

"But when I received this letter I'd no doubt he'd been having another affair. There was so much personal detail in it that I knew this woman was telling the truth. I found a house to rent and moved out.

"After that Sammuel and I stayed in daily contact for the sake of the children but I knew that this time there was no going back.

"It goes without saying, though, that I was shocked when he killed himself. My parents came round to break the news to me - my mum looked like a ghost.

"Of course, subsequently people have said that Sammuel died of a broken heart. But the truth is that if I had broken Sammuel's heart by leaving him, my heart was broken by living with him. I had to get out of what was a bad relationship. I felt it was dragging me under and standing in the way of me making a full recovery from my agoraphobia.

"And even after all that has happened I don't for one minute regret leaving Sammuel. It was a bad relationship, and had I stayed, my children would have grown up with constant fighting all around them.

"Sammuel was an adult and he made a decision to kill himself, and that was a selfish decision. He left our children to grow up without a father."

It was, insists Rachel, only after Sammuel's death that she got back in touch with Portillo. Contact was resumed at her instigation. "A few months back I was sitting at my computer doing some work on an interview for my radio show when Michael suddenly came into my head," she reveals.

"I went to his website and on the spur of the moment decided to send him an email. I just thought, 'I'd love to let him know all that has been going on in my life.'

"He replied quickly, saying, 'Rachel, this is horrendous, I'm so sorry ...' He was somebody to talk to and I was glad that we were back in touch. Our friendship just sparked up from there.

"He helped me. He said things that put everything else into perspective at a time when everything seemed awful. Here was someone whom I had a lot of respect for and his advice was invaluable."

And last week when ex-MP Portillo arrived in Belfast to give a speech at the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce's presidential banquet, the pair met up at the Ramada hotel.

According to newspaper reports, Rachel spent two hours alone with Portillo in his £200-a-night suite at the Ramada hotel. Then, after making his speech, he reportedly spent another hour alone with her, this time in her room.

Rachel believes reporters were first tipped off about her friendship with Portillo after she "foolishly" confided in a male friend a few months back.

She also claims she agreed to "give a few quotes" to the paper that ran the story, on the understanding they would not then use the names of her children.

"Originally I told them I just had a friendship with Michael, but then they said they had these photos of me going into his room and him going into my room," she says. "They said I would look like a liar, so I had to put my hands up and say yes. They wanted me to do a full kiss-and-tell, but I was never going to do that."

Whatever her intentions, undoubtedly Rachel now finds herself at the centre of a media storm that is proving well-nigh impossible to calm down.

SINCE news of the couple's tryst broke, Rachel says she has been in touch with Portillo by telephone: "We have spoken about it - we speak every day - and he has been very supportive. He wanted to make sure that I was okay. He's said, 'it's bad; it's bad but it won't kill any of us.' He's also advised me to just keep saying 'no comment' to reporters."

Asked about his encounter with Rachel, Portillo has only said: "I deny it. I have no wish to make any further comment."

Rachel also has sympathy for Portillo's wife, Carolyn, who has been married to him for 23 years and previously stood by him during revelations of his homosexual past.

Rachel adds: "I made a mistake. I got involved with a married man and I should not have done that. I played with fire and I got my fingers burnt.

"I don't blame anyone but myself. Yes, I'm still fond of Michael but I don't feel good about becoming involved with a married man and I deeply regret it.

"I just want people to know I'm not an awful person. I've been through a lot, too, and I'm just trying to move on with my life and do the best by my son and daughter.

"Like I've said, the past few days have been a nightmare.

"I'm desperately sorry for the hurt these stories in the paper have caused my parents - and I wouldn't be able to get through any of it without their help, as well as the support of my family and friends."

Rachel Johnston did not receive any payment for this interview


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