Whatever happened to the man who beat Portillo?

Stephen Twigg, the symbol of New Labour's 1997 landslide, lost his seat in 2005. Now he returns as a Labour candidate in Liverpool West Derby. Rob Hastings meets him

He is someone whose name will live on forever in political folklore no matter what else he achieves, simply because of that one night in 1997. So perhaps it would be understandable if Stephen Twigg recoiled and rolled his eyes on being asked to go over those early hours in Enfield Southgate one more time.

Like the band that resent the early number one hit that will always overshadow the rest of their back catalogue, the man who began his parliamentary career by unseating Michael Portillo with a 17 per cent swing might have grown tired of that particular tale – especially after the shock reversal of fate that brought his own election loss in 2005. Isn’t he sick of hearing about it now?

"People often ask me that," he answers. But with the same boyish smile that instantly became a key image of that election quickly spreading across his face once more, it's clear the answer is no. Indeed a photo of Mr Twigg and his old adversary, under the headline "Michael Portillo vanquished," features on the leaflets publicising his candidature in Liverpool West Derby, his potential new constituency.

"It's amazing how resonant it still is with people now, 13 years on," he says. "We'll be knocking on doors here and people will say 'You're the one who beat Portillo, well done!" like it was yesterday."

"I had no sense it was going to happen. Lance Price was there for the BBC that night and at 10:30 he came over to me and said 'There's not going to be a story here, is there?' I said: 'I don't think so'.

"I'd set a target of knocking Michael's majority down to under 10,000 and on the night I still thought Michael would hold it. I was standing next to him when the returning officer read out all the figures backstage and he looked round at us and said 'Everybody happy?' and Michael just said 'Ecstatic'."

Mr Twigg was one of Labour's brightest young hopes back then. Still aged just 43, it is a role he is about to reprise.

The loss of his seat in 2005 came as a big surprise for the former president of the National Union of Students, who had increased his majority in 2001 and been made Minister for Schools – David Milliband's superior – soon afterwards. In hindsight, however, suffering at the polls from the anti-Iraq War backlash might have been the best thing that could have happened to him.

Mr Twigg's time out of parliament has not only spared him association with the election expenses scandal but also the various bouts of party in-fighting that have marked Gordon Brown's premiership. Having been thrust into parliament unexpectedly early – he says he arrived with "bucket loads" of naivety – the breather allowed him to refresh his political perspective away from Westminster as well. Yet he has managed to keep his Blairite political irons warm too, serving as director of the Foreign Policy Centre and chairman of Progress.

Now, after securing the nomination for one of Labour's safest seats, he looks set to ride back into parliament with an irresistible combination of youth and ministerial experience on his side. Whoever ends up in Downing Street, this fresh face is well placed to feature prominently in Labour's future.

Admitting that "it has been a very difficult time over the last three years for the Labour party," he agrees his sabbatical has probably done him good.

"Clearly there is an advantage for me and others coming back. It is a good position to combine previous experience with being part of a new intake of people coming in.

In terms of the perspective that will bring for each of us, we can play a positive part in the renewal that will take place in the party and the government, regardless of the result."

Renewal is a theme Mr Twigg is keen to riff on, feeling there has to be a "battle for ideas" after the election, no matter what the result.

Before he can take the lead in this battle, of course, he still has to win his seat in Liverpool West Derby. It's a constituency that has seen plenty of media publicity in recent years as it includes the park where, to nationwide outcry, teenager Rhys Jones was shot dead in 2007.

Being a middle-class Londoner from the right of the party – with a voice reminiscent of a young Tony Blair to boot – Mr Twigg could have been vulnerable to the same kind of disconnection from the local electorate as Luciana Berger has experienced in the next-door constituency of Liverpool Wavertree.

But whereas Ms Berger was selected under controversial circumstances just three months ago, he has had three years to bed down since winning his open selection contest.

"I had the advantage of being selected very early on and it's given me a lot of time to establish myself and get a bit of a profile," he says. "When I've been out knocking on doors, I've literally had nobody here say to me 'How come you're a southerner standing here in Liverpool?' I'm not saying that nobody thinks it, but nobody has said it to me.

"I even raise it myself, because my voice is not a Scouse accent, but the typical reaction is 'We'll judge you by how you do the job and not where you’re from originally.' We've done a lot of canvassing here over the past three years and by and large the Labour vote here seems to be holding up."

He had also wondered if being so intrinsically identified with the rise of New Labour would bring its own problems.

"When people say 'I remember you from 1997,' I almost expect they're going to say 'and I feel disappointed'. There is a bit of me that thinks they're going to say 'I feel let down'. But I almost never get it. Perhaps if I was back in Southgate, there would be more people expressing disappointment."

Maybe this is another case of Mr Twigg being a fortunate as well as a skilful politician. Blessed with easygoing charm and charisma too, one wonders just how far he could go if that luck continues.

While watching him out canvassing, one member of his campaign team has no doubt as to his potential. "He could be the next Labour prime minister," he says quietly.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape