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.

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
Arts and Entertainment
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior SEO Manager - £30,000 - Manchester City Centre

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This forward-thinking agency works with ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Field Sales - OTE £30,000

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a rapidly expanding offi...

Recruitment Genius: HVAC Project Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful candidate will b...

Recruitment Genius: Key Accounts Administrator - Fixed Term

£13500 - £14500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting new opportunity has...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game