Night-clubbing, EastEnders ... the new MP for Enfield Southgate has given up a lot, he tells Janie Lawrence. But not as much as Michael Portillo. By
So far there have been more than 1,600 letters of congratulation and they're still coming in - from strangers, old friends, even the dentist he had when he was four. Stephen Twigg's arrival in the House of Commons has generated more attention than is customary for a new backbencher. But then on election night, Twigg seized the scalp that nobody really believed possible. The Rt Hon Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo, Defence Secretary and would-be future leader of the Tories, was out, and New Labour's Twigg (aged 30), first-time candidate and openly homosexual, was the Member of Parliament for Enfield Southgate.

Little wonder, then, that it was a bemused-looking Twigg who took to the mike for his acceptance speech. Fresh-faced and hunched-shouldered, in a suit that looked as if it had been hastily swiped off a much larger brother, he looked for all the world like a dazed Lottery-winner.

Just 48 hours before his victory, Twigg, lacking a campaign photocopier of his own, had been making frantic jaunts to his local print shop to run off more leaflets. "We knew there was a big swing, but we didn't realise it would be big enough to win," he says.

He had met Portillo in February, when the Cabinet minister invited his two opponents to lunch. "It was very pleasant. We talked about the constituency and a little bit about ourselves. I think he was sussing us out to see what kind of opponents he actually had."

With hindsight, were the Tories so unpopular that Labour could have fielded a monkey and won? Twigg chuckles. "I couldn't claim an enormous personal vote. I think a first-time candidate rarely has that, whoever they're standing against. But I do think it was more than simply a matter of him losing."

Now decked out in an appropriately sized suit and a snazzy Matinique tie, it has to be said that Twigg, lightly gelled haircut and all, is much easier on the eye than many of his colleagues. Handsome and lightly bronzed, he hasn't yet assumed either the grey complexion or the cynical manner of some of the old Westminster hands. New to the interview game, he is nervy as to quite what to say and how far to go, although not unexpectedly he is one of the Blair evangelists.

Twigg has followed a well-trodden path to the Commons. Student politics at Oxford, president of the NUS for two years, Islington councillor, researcher for Margaret Hodge MP, and, until his election, general secretary of the Fabian Society. This lack of experience outside politics seems ever more common among the new breed of politician. "It would be a problem if everyone was like me," he concedes. "But I haven't only been a politician. Although the Fabian Society is a political organisation, the general secretary is actually a management position."

As one of only three openly gay MPs (Chris Smith and Ben Bradshaw being the others), he is acutely aware of the danger of being pigeon-holed as a one-issue politician, especially as the brouhaha over lowering the legal age of consent rages on. Citing the pamphlet he has written on PR, he asserts that his interests are substantially more wide-ranging than those specifically connected to the gay community. "The fact that I'm gay is a personal thing to me," he stresses. "I think Chris Smith is a role model for this. I don't think he was ever seen as a single-issue politician."

Since the last election the Conservative benches have possessed no openly gay Tories. How many closet Tories would he estimate there are? He flounders. "I don't know ... I really can't ... I don't think it would be helpful. I don't see any point in speculation." So does that mean there aren't any? "Of course there are. Definitely." So why, in this more relaxed social climate, are they not following his example? "Although I am by no means claiming that there is no prejudice on our side, on the Tory side there is more prejudice at the grass roots. So some Conservatives might feel it could be politically damaging."

He is vehemently opposed to the concept of outing. "It is just plain wrong, and I know all the arguments about hypocrisy. Obviously I would prefer that people did come out, but nobody has the right to make that choice on someone else's behalf. It's a very personal choice for all of us."

But what about when that personal sexual choice is at odds with the individual's public stance? Such as, for instance, if a known homosexual MP publicly disapproves of gays in the armed services? Doesn't it make his blood boil? "No more than someone who's not gay. I don't think that you can put a greater responsibility on someone who happens themselves to be gay. That lets the person who's not gay off the hook. Frankly, what we want is to persuade all MPs to support equality initiatives."

He is closely involved with Stonewall, and is campaigning to repeal Section 28, the provision in local government law banning the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools. "On paper it doesn't sound too extreme - I don't want PROMOTION. But the law was brought in to stop honest discussion."

He has just been awarded a spouse's pass to Westminster for his partner of five months. The move did not pass unnoticed by the tabloids. "I don't see any reason why it should be controversial," Twigg says. "The same provisions now exist for unmarried heterosexual partners, and I see it as a continuation of that. What it means is that Parliament as an institution is respecting that some people are in same-sex relationships."

Stephen made the decision to come out when he was 18 and studying for his A-levels at Southgate Comprehensive. "It was an awful time to do it, really. But I didn't suddenly wake up at 18 - it was a gradual thing. Although I suppose I wasn't certain in my own mind until I was 16 or 17."

His mother, who died five years ago, never fully reconciled herself to her son's sexual preference. "She took it very badly. Quite a few liberal parents have reacted like that - she could cope with it in theory, but had difficulty in practice. So she coped with it by just not talking about it, and I dealt with how she was feeling by not talking about it. So when I came back from college for weekends we just wouldn't discuss anything that was to do with my personal life. Once I did bring a partner back, but it was so strained I never did it again." His father, on the other hand, has always been "brilliant", he says.

Twigg lives in Islington but intends to sell his flat and move back to Southgate, where his father, an insurance broker, and his sister still live. He has already been made governor of a local primary school and is rapidly becoming a connoisseur of primary-school fetes. The previous Sunday he had judged a fancy-dress competition. No time for clubbing, then? "I haven't been since I won." And he is not quite sure when he is going to catch up with EastEnders, of which he is a big fan. (Carol - Lindsey Coulson - is his favourite, not least because she did some campaigning for him.)

Being an MP is bound to restrict the lifestyle of a young homosexual, in far more intrusive ways than missing EastEnders. Photographers would have a field day if he was caught drunk staggering out of certain types of clubs, I suggest. "I can take my drink, so I don't think there'll be any problem of being caught with too much to drink. I don't see this affecting the way I lead my life, but obviously I'm conscious that wherever I go as an MP I'm in the public eye."

For the moment, he says, his priority is to get on with being an effective constituency MP. Yes, yes, I say, that's the party line but ... he bristles. "That's the truth," he protests. But come come, Stephen, surely you're more ambitious than that? "Yes, in the longer term it would be great to have a chance to be part of a government, but that really is long term."

Meanwhile, many in the gay community have adopted Twigg as a role model and are relying on him to deliver the goods. An onerous responsibility? "I can't say I find it onerous. I'm happy to have that role. It's a question of getting the balance right, and so far I don't feel there's a problem"n

Comments