An Encounter with Lembit Opik.
As I arrive Lembit is standing casually in the middle of Cholo. Phone-to-ear, advising someone in mock serious tones, he seems completely at ease. He suggests that the caller should talk to the perpetrators of what I assume to be some fairly heinous constituency problem; instead, it seems, he was discussing a beehive with a close friend. This humour runs throughout the interview, rearing its head again when I ask him why he got involved in politics. The burning issue, Lembit informs me with a face which could almost certainly win him a game of poker, ‘was the 1975 Icelandic fishing controversy.’ And he’s not joking.
This first glimmer of humour dispelled my largely media influenced image of the Lib Dems: woolly idealists whose idea of a good time is reciting the Human Rights act by rote and buying a new pair of sand-coloured sandals. Lembit, in fact, combines the best of the each. Going on to criticise the ubiquitous rush for the centre, it soon becomes clear to me that Lembit is by no means a substance-less careerist. Öpik is clearly a card-carrying member of that near extinct political breed- the charismatic idealist. Labour and the Tories, he informs me, hammering the table with his index finger, ‘are now essentially the same party.’ ‘Why not,’ he asks, ‘simply merge the two, create a new badge and have Brown as leader and Cameron as his deputy?’
Will Brown really be the same as Blair though? I suggest to Lembit that a Brown Premiership would abandon Neo-Conservative foreign policy. He tentatively agrees, but then something strikes him. ‘Brown has pulled off a political miracle in not being associated with any of Labour’s errors.’ Whilst many used to regard Blair as ‘Teflon Tony’, Öpik thinks, in contrast, that we now have a ‘Teflon Chancellor.’ Thus far Brown has managed to avoid the poisonous splash back from Iraq and Top-Up fees whilst accruing all the praise for the economy and standing back from Labour’s ‘crimes.’
Does he not, I wonder, value the achievements which Labour has made since 1997?
‘In 1997 I was moved to tears that we’d got rid of the Tories.’ And there were, he admits, ‘some reasons to be cheerful after 1997. Gordon Brown had made museums free,’ and most importantly for the M.P from Montgomeryshire in Wales (like a good Lib Dem Öpik never forgets Localism, the Lib Dems’ sacred cow), ‘Labour had granted devolution to Wales and Scotland.’ The biggest thing which sticks in Öpik’s (somewhat encyclopaedic) brain is Mo Mowlam’s legacy: The Good Friday Agreement.
These achievements, do not however, outweigh Labour’s colossal errors for Lembit. Becoming almost apoplectic with rage, Öpik starts on tuition fees, encouraged along the way by this –totally unbiased- student interviewer. The government’s ‘tax on learning’ is the biggest incentive Lembit has ever known, ‘to be on the dole.’ How though, I wonder, would the Lib Dems have done it differently? ‘Well just look at Scotland and Wales,’ Öpik replies. Before I can get a word in, he continues: ‘I learnt more in my Philosophy degree than I ever would have done in engineering.’ For Lembit, Top-Up fees are a ‘home-grown policy crime’ and will not be repealed until the Lib Dems come to power- and he is so passionate about this that I’m forced to believe him; or at least believe that he believes himself.
Clearly then, Lembit is fairly driven man. But which political figures did Lembit draw inspiration from? ‘There were four, the most important of which was John F. Kennedy.’ ‘A serial philanderer?’ I ask. ‘Kennedy managed to separate the political from the personal, and that’s something we’ve all benefited from.’ The mention of personal life sparks off an alarm in my head and I realise that I’ve thus far forgotten the tabloid questions about a certain other Kennedy. ‘How is Charles Kennedy getting along these days?’ ‘As far as I know he’s fine,’ remarks Lembit. But the crucial question: ‘will he one day make a return to the Lib Dem front bench?’ With the hint of aggression characteristic of someone who has been asked this question thousands of times, Öpik trots out a well rehearsed answer: ‘If Charles wants to come back he will.’
I realise I’ve spent far too long in indulging in my personal political interests and unrelated scandal; on to some serious questions about the Lib Dems. ‘How do you think Ming Campbell is doing as leader?’ ‘I was never one of Ming’s men, but our poll rating has been steady since he’s been leading us. And that’s good enough for me.’ His use of the word steady sends sparks flying in my mind; is it not just a synonym for stagnant I muse. I’ve always regarded the Lib Dems as somewhat contradictory entity. I wonder if Lembit shares my view: ‘Are the Lib Dems a united force; or are they are two poles fighting for some common ground?’ ‘Rubbish,’ Lembit replies; this idea is one that has resulted from media laziness: the media have consistently targeted the Lib Dems. I can sense a media bashing is coming; and he doesn’t disappoint: the media gave the Lib Dems hell over the Mark Oaten saga and they are clearly not happy. ‘If the media want to make saints out of politicians, they can become saints first themselves.’ Surely, though I ask, ‘they have the right to criticise those who say one thing and do another- like, say, Simon Hughes?’ ‘Simon was never a hypocrite,’ Öpik replies: ‘Peter Tatchell came out and said that himself.’ (In a 1980’s election campaign, Hughes was accused of homophobia after a smear campaign against the openly gay Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell.) One senses that though Öpik must have wheeled out this answer on countless occasions, but it’s nevertheless a heartfelt one.
And that’s what I take away from the interview: in a substance-less political world dominated by chinless wonders such as Dave Cameron, Lembit Öpik’s sincerity is a breath of fresh air. Refusing to tow the party line on certain issues, he comes across as a realistic idealist- something this country needs far more of. I leave the interview believing, if nothing else, in his sincerity- a quality almost extinct in modern politics. I also wonder who his other three idols were…