POLITICS
13/02/2015 05:56 GMT | Updated 13/02/2015 08:59 GMT

General Election 2015 'Portillo Moments' And The Candidates Hoping To Decapitate A Big Beast

"We laughed. Even at 10pm," Stephen Twigg says. The Labour MP is recalling how, even as the national exit poll was released on election night 1997, he thought it fanciful that he would beat Michael Portillo.

But he did. And the toppling of the then Conservative defence secretary became one of the iconic moments of Tony Blair's landslide victory.

The overall outcome of the coming election is far less predictable. But the breakdown of the two-party system has left political observers salivating at the prospect of multiple 'Portillo-moments' on the evening of May 7 and into the early hours of the next day.

Eighteen years on from Portillo's decapitation in Enfield Southgate, the focus is on Sheffield Hallam - where Nick Clegg looks to be in trouble. And he is not the only one. At least five other high-profile politicians are looking warily over their shoulder's, some for the first time.

Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, Tory cabinet ministers Nicky Morgan and Esther McVey and Labour's shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander are all under threat.

There is also the possibility of a 'reverse-Portillo'. Nigel Farage hopes to be elected the MP for Thanet South - where the incumbent Tory MP is stepping down. However polls have indicated his Conservative challenger may be able to block the Ukip leader.

Portillo himself told The Huffington Post, perhaps not entirely convincingly, that losing to Twigg turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "Leaving politics was a good thing. I was spared a miserable Tory government where I might have ended up as leader," he said.

As for the humiliation on national TV? "It was a very useful experience in my life," he said. "I had to dig into my own resources. I can truly say it forced me to expand my horizons, which was obviously necessary."

He has, he said, "no itch at all" to return to parliament. "I spent 20 years of my life there. I enjoyed it very much, but there's no itch. Politics hasn't changed, but I've changed."

The man who beat Portillo remembers the moment well. On the evening of May 1, Twigg was at home with his sister. As the national exit poll on TV was released they dismissively joked that on that swing away from the Tories, even Stephen could win.

But down at the count, half an hour before the result was announced on TV, Twigg was told he was about to become an MP. "The moment where we were given the result. I was stunned," he says. "I just did feel a weird mix of sensations, elation was the main feeling, but I suppose a sense of trepidation. I wasn't really prepared. I hadn't been expecting to make an acceptance speech. And all the practical things, like setting up an MPs office."

When Twigg was first selected to fight Enfield Southgate he had no expectation he would win. Portillo had a majority of 15,563. Twigg believed he would fight, lose, then find a winnable seat at the next election in 2001. It is a much-trodden path to parliament. So unlikely was his chances thought to be, that many of his campaign team, such as it was, were dispatched to neighbouring marginal constituencies that were seen as actually winnable. A decision he fully endorsed.

But then the Sunday before election day, a poll in The Observer changed everything. "The poll was 45% Conservative, 41% Labour. There was an indication a big swing to us," he recalls. "The second part of the campaign, Sunday to Thursday, we had a completely different tempo and momentum."

Suddenly, Twigg had people ringing him up offering their help and asking where his campaign office was. He did not have one. "We had to invent someone's front room as a HQ," he laughs.

On election night, Portillo did not arrive the count until it became clear the result was down to the wire. "He saw me as he arrived and he said to me: 'you must be devastated'. Which was quite amusing," Twigg tells The Huffington Post. Portillo recognised that his young Labour challenger had not been expecting for his life to change quite so fast.

The assembled candidates, Portillo and Twigg included, were told the final result shortly before being ushered onto the stage in front of the TV cameras. "Are you all happy?" the returning officer asked the candidates. "Ecstatic," Portillo replied dryly, having just learned his huge majority, and chances of becoming the next leader of his party, had vanished.

Nick Clegg

Just like Portillo, Clegg has a superficially unassailable majority. The deputy prime minister won Sheffield Hallam in 2010 by 15,284 votes. And like Enfield Southgate, it is polling that has got Labour excited. A recent Survation poll put the Lib Dems ten points behind Labour in the seat. And a separate, and much discussed, survey from Lord Ashcroft suggested the deputy prime minister was three points behind his Labour rival, Oliver Coppard. Despite having described the Survation poll as "utter, utter bilge", the Lib Dem leader might be more worried than he lets on.

Coppard has claimed victory in one regard already, getting Clegg to agree to a debate in the constituency in March.

"I've said from the start that we could win here and I stick to that," says Coppard. "We still have a long way to go, and a lot can happen between now and May 7th, but we'll keep working as hard as we can right up until the polls close. You can ask me how confident I am of victory on the morning of May 8."

"Nick Clegg has some real advantages - his high profile means he gets more attention and more funding from private donors," Coppard says of his fight, painting himself as the underdog. "We won't be able to outspend the Lib Dems, but we have an amazing team of volunteers."

Like other candidates, Coppard is emphasising his local roots. "It would mean everything to me to be able to represent the community I was brought up in," he says. The deputy prime minister was born in Buckinghamshire.

Decapitating Clegg would be a huge election night coup for Ed Miliband. It would also throw the Lib Dems into chaos just as any coalition negotiations were due to begin.

One of the men who would likely run to replace Clegg is Danny Alexander. However he is also in danger of being ousted from parliament, this time by the SNP. Speaking to journalists at a Westminster lunch recently, Alexander said he was "confident" that he would retain his seat, but acknowledged it would be a "tough fight".

Drew Hendry is the SNP candidate hoping to overturn the chief secretary to the Treasury's 8,765 vote majority in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. "I get the fact that an awful lot of people want Danny Alexander beaten in this election," he says. "I know, for instance, that a major Labour Party donor has placed a keen bet on him losing."

Hendry, the leader of the Highland Council, says Alexander's "unerring commitment to Tory policies and cuts makes him many people’s number one target to defeat". Of course, Hendry would rather win because people like him rather than because they dislike Alexander. "Nothing would be more pleasing than to have people voting for me and our positive campaign ahead of their desire to see the incumbent out," he says.

Nicky Morgan

One of the Conservatives that could be in trouble is education secretary Nicky Morgan in Loughborough. The cabinet minister, who has had a rapid rise given she was first elected in 2010, but with a slender majority over Labour of just 3,744 votes, her fall could be just as fast.

Matthew O'Callaghan, the Labour candidate, is "very confident" of victory. For one, he was selected to fight the seat three-and-a-half-years ago, in August 2011. Making him the third longest selected candidate in the country. O'Callaghan hopes that Morgan's high profile job in the cabinet has "increased the distance between herself and ordinary constituents" rather than helped her. "Her becoming a Cabinet Minister in her first term as an MP has alienated a number of her former supporters."

"In the past she has almost tried to appear as an ‘Independent’ – famously she attacked her own party in January last year when she said the Conservatives were based on hatred. Well now she is a major player in the Conservative government and jointly responsible for all its policies."

Labour were also encouraged by a constituency poll (from Lord Ashcroft, of course) that showed voters in the seat were split 26% for the Tories and 25% for Labour. "Not the ringing endorsement expected from her increased profile," O'Callaghan observes. "The more she gets high profile visits from Tory grandees the more it emphasises her links with the Conservative government’s policies and for me that’s no bad thing."

O'Callaghan is aware that Morgan is the most vulnerable cabinet minister, and likes to play up the idea she is not local. "When she first came up from London, having tried elsewhere unsuccessfully for a seat, people were very sceptical about her motives, but were prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt," he says.

Morgan first stood for parliament in the super safe Labour seat of Islington South in 2001. She followed the route that Twigg thought he would take. Make a good effort in a lost cause, then move to a more secure constituency.

"I went to school in the neighbouring town of Ashby," O'Callaghan says, hoping to draw a contrast. "So I’ve roots here and it would be fantastic to win."

Esther McVey, the employment minister who also attends cabinet, is another potential high profile Tory casualty on election night. The Wirral West MP was the face of Cameron's move to promote more women in his pre-election reshuffle. However her 2,436 vote majority is tight. Labour's Margaret Greenwood, a web consultant and former teacher, has a good chance of kicking out Merseyside's only Tory MP.

douglas alexander

The extraordinary surge in support for the SNP following the independence referendum has painted crosshairs on Douglas Alexander, Labour's shadow foreign secretary. Alexander, a veteran of the Blair-Brown years is election co-ordinator for the 2015 fight. He could help pilot Miliband into Downing Street - but end up unable to take his seat alongside the Labour leader in cabinet.

Mhairi Black is the 20-year-old SNP candidate hoping to overturn Alexander's rather healthy 16,614 majority in Paisley and Renfrewshire South. If she wins, despite some controversial comments about wanting to "put the nut" into some Labour councillors, she will become the youngest MP since 1832.

"The Commons is there to represent everybody," she told Channel 4 News in her first ever TV interview earlier this week. "Who came up with the rule you have to be a middle class, middle aged male to be in the House of Commons?"

Nigel Farage

Portillo moments usually refer to a high profile sitting MP being kicked out. However May 7 could see a new twist on the term. Nigel Farage is hopeful to see at least a handful of Ukip MPs elected to the Commons. But the leader of the self-styled 'People's Army' could end up having to watch his Westminster earthquake happen from the outside.

Polling, again by Lord Ashcroft, found that Farage was five points behind Craig Mackinlay, Conservative candidate. Mackinlay was Ukip leader in 1997. The Tories hope his eurosceptic credentials will be enough to block Farage. In 2005, Farage contested the seat for Ukip, coming fourth with 2,079 votes. Since 1994, he has contested six Westminster parliamentary elections. It's probably now or never in 2015.

"Wouldn't it be great if we won?" a Tory MP recently imagined with glee. "It'd cut the head right off the snake!"

Twigg, who has been campaigning in Morgan and McVey's constituencies on behalf of their Labour opponents has some words of wisdom for the candidates that hope to repeat his 1997 'Portillo moment'. "I was very conscious that Portillo was defence secretary. Candidates in some of the seats may be very conscious of their opponent," he says. "But actually, whilst the people engaged in politics see the significance of the education secretary, or Esther Mcvery losing her seat … for most voters it's about the local issues."

"The main advice I'd give from my experience is to be local, local, local. It's that old Tip O'Neill thing." The long-serving former Speaker of the US House of Representatives famously coined the phrase: "All politics is local".

Portillo returned to parliament in mid-term in 1999 and got his revenge, of sorts, in 2005. While Blair won his third election victory in a row, Twigg lost Enfield to the Conservative candidate David Burrowes.

Coming to terms with life outside of the Commons, Twigg received a text message from Portillo. It read simply: "May I recommend a by-election?"