Portillo moment

The Portillo moment was the dramatic declaration of the result for the Enfield Southgate constituency in the 1997 UK general election, at around 3:10am on 2 May 1997. The Labour candidate Stephen Twigg, then relatively unknown, defeated the sitting MP, Conservative cabinet minister Michael Portillo. The result was perceived as a pivotal indication that the Conservatives would be voted out of office after 18 years, and that New Labour would win the election by a substantial majority.

The late-night declaration of the result became the subject of the question "Were you still up for Portillo?", asking whether a person had remained awake until after 3am to see or hear the key general election results. "Portillo moment" has become a metaphor for an indication of a sudden and significant change in political fortunes.


Michael Portillo was first elected to Parliament to represent Enfield Southgate at a by-election in 1984. The constituency includes largely suburban areas on the west of the London Borough of Enfield. Portillo retained the seat at the 1987 general election, and won with a comfortable majority of 15,563 in the 1992 general election.

By 1997, Portillo was Secretary of State for Defence in the Conservative government. He had developed a reputation as one a leading lights of the right wing of the Conservative Party, and he was considered a possible candidate to follow John Major as party leader after the 1997 general election. The Labour Party candidate, Stephen Twigg – 30 years old, openly gay, and relatively unknown – was unlikely to be able to overturn Portillo's substantial majority.

The Conservatives held a small majority in the House of Commons after the 1992 general election, and remained in power for almost the maximum possible 5 years as their majority was gradually reduced at successive by-elections. Coming into the 1997 general election, Labour had held a substantial lead in the national polls for a considerable time, but Portillo's seat was still considered "safe". However, a poll in The Observer newspaper on the weekend before the election which showed that Portillo held a lead of only three percentage points.

After the polls had closed but before the result was formally announced, Portillo was interviewed live by Jeremy Paxman on BBC television. By that stage, Portillo was aware of the result. Portillo struggled to answer Paxman's first question, "So Michael, are you going to miss the limo?" or the follow-up, "Are we seeing the end of the Conservative Party as a credible force in British politics?".

Twigg and the other candidates also knew the results before the formal announcement. Twigg was shocked, but determined to keep a neutral expression during the announcement to maintain viewers' excitement to the last moment.


The election result was announced live on national television. Patrick Cunneen was the returning officer. The candidates lined up on the stage at the Picketts Lock Leisure Centre in Enfield, while Cunneen read out the results, starting with these candidates:

There was a brief ripple of laughter when Cunneen read out Portillo's given names - Michael Denzil Xavier - and then quiet as he announced Portillo's vote - 19,137 (41.1%) - followed by some applause. After announcing the results for Alan Storkey of the Christian Democrat Party - 289 (0.6%) - and waiting for brief cheers from Storkey's supporters to subside, Cunneen announced Twigg's name and then his vote - 20,570 votes (44.2%) - triggering sustained loud celebrations from Labour supporters.


The result in Enfield Southgate represented a 17.4% swing to Labour. Nationally, Labour won a landslide victory with a parliamentary majority of 179 seats. Other prominent Conservatives to lose their seat included Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, Trade Secretary Ian Lang, Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth and former ministers Edwina Currie, Norman Lamont, David Mellor and Neil Hamilton.

Twigg was the first openly gay man to be elected to the House of Commons, followed 21 minutes later by Ben Bradshaw in Exeter (Chris Smith had been the first to openly declare his sexual orientation, in 1984, one year after he was elected). Twigg retained the seat with an increased majority in the 2001 general election, and served as Minister of State for Schools in 2004-5. He lost his seat to the Conservative David Burrowes in the 2005 general election, but he returned the House of Commons as MP for Liverpool West Derby in the 2010 general election.

After losing Enfield Southgate in 1997, Portillo returned to the House of Commons in 1999, winning the by-election for Kensington and Chelsea after the death of Alan Clark. He served in the Shadow Cabinet as Deputy Leader and Shadow Chancellor, and stood as a candidate to become leader of the Conservative Party after the 2001 general election. He left the House of Commons at the 2005 general election.


In his acceptance speech, a beaming Twigg triumphantly announced "there is no such thing as a no-go area for the Labour Party". Although visibly shaken, Portillo was widely praised for his magnanimous response in his concession speech. Earlier that night, David Mellor lost his seat at Putney, and was seen in a televised argument with Referendum Party leader Jimmy Goldsmith. Portillo was determined to lose with as much dignity as he could muster.

The public rejection of Portillo came to symbolise the loss of the election, and continues to be referred to as the "Portillo moment". After the 1997 election, people asked each other "Were you up for Portillo?", a question echoed in the title of book published by Brian Cathcart in October 1997, which recounts the story of the election night from the point when polls closed at 10pm on 1 May 1997, entitled "Were You Still Up for Portillo?" Portillo himself commented, thirteen years later, that as a consequence "My name is now synonymous with eating a bucketload of shit in public." Portillo has joked that the moment was voted by Channel 4 viewers and Observer readers as "their third favourite moment of the 20th century", one place ahead of the assassination of Romanian President Ceaușescu (a Channel 4 list compiled in 1999 actually puts the Portillo third behind the Apollo 11 moon landing and the release of Nelson Mandela, and one place ahead of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales).

The term has become a metaphor for an indication of a sudden and significant change in political fortunes. In 2006, it was feared that changes to the voting legislation, requiring verification of postal votes, could end the chance of a "Portillo moment" by delaying the declaration of results on election night, but in the 2010 general election it was reported that the Conservatives were seeking a "Portillo moment" to unseat the Secretary of State for Schools Ed Balls; in the event, Balls avoided such an ignominious fate until 2015 when he was unseated in what was the Portillo Moment of the 2015 election.

Subsequent "Portillo moments":

The term "Portillo moment" has also been used to describe similar events in past general elections in which a high-profile MP has lost his seat.

Past "Portillo moments":

See also


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