Election 1997 20th anniversary: “Were you up for Portillo? Sort of.”

In a series of pieces, Uncut writers look back at election day 1997. Tony Sophoclides was a political adviser to John Prescott and closely involved in the key seats campaign

The morning was knocking up in Enfield Southgate and the afternoon Brentford and Isleworth. For two years I’d been immersed in the key seats campaign and finally polling day was at hand.

Everything about Labour’s campaign in 1997 had been focused on 91 seats to secure a majority of 45. By May 1st our returns pointed to big wins in these seats and a new swathe of seats was targeted in the final week.

Looking back with hindsight, you wonder if we should have expanded the target list much earlier but at the time the fear of failure was stamped on our psyche. To even contemplate a comfortable victory was to tempt disaster.

Canvassing went well but still I was edgy. Some of team Prescott met at a pub in Westminster at about 2030 before heading over to Festival Hall for the party an hour later.

Only then did I relax.

Walking in, you knew it was a party. Word of the swings being reported on the ground had got through and there was a feeling of huge expectation.

Various celebs were dotted around the Festival Hall, including Richard Branson. Labour had tried so hard to get him to back us, only for him to tease but not commit. Yet here he was, at the party.

A group of us ended up chatting to him when he did a very odd thing, which is apparently one of his common tricks.

We all shook hands with him when after a few moments he asked one of our number, Sue Haylock (who worked for JP then and still does), the time. She looked at her wrist but the watch was gone.

Branson opened his hand and there it was. Even with all that was going on that evening, I clearly recall wondering how on earth he had time to learn and perfect that trick when he was meant to be running a mega-million pound set of businesses.

The evening rolled on as did the booze. Maybe a little too much.

As the mythology holds, the biggest moment was when Portillo lost. I’d invested a lot of personal effort into the constituency and it should have been the pinnacle of the evening for me.

Should have been.

While the Festival Hall was cheering and Steven Twigg’s smile was beaming out from the screens, I was fast asleep in the toilet.

By the time I came to and wandered back out to the party, Enfield Southgate was officially a Labour seat.

In the days following the election there were a series of receptions and events to welcome the new MPs. The magnitude of the victory was brought home at one of these talking to a new MP – he was virtually in a state of panic, “I can’t afford to be an MP, I didn’t think I would win.”

Truly a victory beyond expectation.

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2 Responses to “Election 1997 20th anniversary: “Were you up for Portillo? Sort of.””

  1. uglyfatbloke says:

    How rich was that bloke that he ‘could n’t afford to be an MP?’

  2. buttley says:

    “I can’t afford to be an MP, I didn’t think I would win.”

    yeah sure, getting by on 44k plus expenses back in 97, must have been so tough.

    its 74k now, and “indexed to changes in average earnings in the whole economy”,

    which sounds rather reasonable, unlike the pay freezes they foist on everyone else.

    but, you know, one has to make sacrifices, when one is serving the people

    Talking of past glories, maybe in 3 years uncut can re-live that vanguard feat of New Labour entrepreneurial achievement, the millennium dome.

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