Saturday, May 1, 2010

Lembit Öpik: There's more to the cheeky boy than his love-life

I meet Lembit Öpik - MP, Liberal Democrat spokesman for Northern Ireland and Wales, but mostly just a cheeky, cheeky boy - at his Westminster office. "Wow, fantastic view," I say, because it is a fantastic view, right over the Thames. Did you have to fight to get this room? "Luck of the draw," he says happily. There are a couple of other chaps bustling about - researchers? - and a newspaper cutting with the headline: "Asteroid on collision course with earth". He has always fretted about asteroids. "The question isn't if," he says, "it's when." Yikes!

It's a messy office - "we haven't bothered tarting it up for you, I'm afraid" - but not an especially cheeky one unless you count the pink, Cheeky Girl mousemat. Anyway, we are not here to talk about all that. Lembit says he is so, so bored of all that. "I've been amazed at the level of interest as I don't think it's much of a story," he says. I don't remonstrate and say: "But Lembik, it's the most mind-boggling, funniest, unlikeliest pairing ever," because I am a coward, and quite a cowardly coward at that. Still, I can't imagine anything more mind-boggling or unlikelier unless, say, it was suddenly discovered that Anne Widdecombe was dating Duncan from Blue. In this instance, I should add, it's probably best not to imagine the children. I did, for a minute, and got quite scared. That's being a coward for you.

But enough, enough. After all, we are meant to be concentrating on Lembit the politician, not the Lembit who forsook that Welsh weather lady, Sian Lloyd, for 24-year-old Gabriela Irimia, one half of the barely clad Romanian pop duo whose only hit single, "Cheeky Girls (Touch My Bum)", was recently voted the worst song in pop history. But this is fine by me. I am interested in getting the measure of Lembit Öpik. What kind of a man is he, really? What does he believe in? What policies does he support (aside from being keen on getting the Government to spend millions deflecting asteroids)? Is he foolish? Or smart? Humble or self-aggrandising? Did Sian do those fluttery hands in bed and, if so, did they tickle or soothe? What if I was to invite him to Touch My Bum? Are he and Gabi engaged? She was, after all, recently pictured in a tabloid wearing an engagement ring, wasn't she?

"It's not an engagement ring," he says. "Or, if it is, it's not from me. Gabi just happens to wear a lot of jewellery. I think if I had given her an engagement ring I'd remember, don't you? Your profession are very economical with the truth. I read that we're getting married in April at Luton register office. I said to Gabi: 'Why Luton?' She said: 'I don't know, you booked it.'" He laughs gaily. They don't bother you, these sorts of stories? "Nah. It's only entertainment," he says. He laughs again, adjusts his glasses, pushes them back up his nose. He is 42 and may be a bit of a geeky boy, as well as a cheeky, cheeky one. He adds: "If you've got character, you're treated with suspicion in politics. Why? All the greatest politicians had character. Look at Churchill. He had character!" I don't know what's in it for Gabi, but I will say that his Westminster nickname is "Tripod". I think I'll leave that hanging, so to speak.

Anyway, the deal is that I trail Lembit for the afternoon, and he's got the itinerary all worked out. First, it's some kind of statutory instrument committee meeting about policing in Northern Ireland at which he's due to speak - great, let's go! - then it's a reception that has something to do with reducing the use of animals in medical research and then it'll be on to a meeting of the BBC Group, which does what exactly? It meets, he says, to facilitate parliamentary and BBC relations. "I'm the Vice Chair," he says, "and our greatest achievement was probably helping to save Andy Kershaw's radio programme on world music. Andy got turfed off Radio One and after a very intense campaign in parliament he was given a new slot." Is that really a parliamentary matter, I query. Could you bring back Blind Date, do you think, if you put your mind to it? "Well," he says, "it became a parliamentary matter in the sense I chose to take it up ... and it's part of the BBC's commitment to public broadcasting." I think he is pally with Andy Kershaw, not that you'd ever know it. It's only: "I saw Andy last weekend. He lives on the Isle of Man now." And, later, when we're discussing Desert Island Discs, it is: "Andy's going on in three weeks and is really fretting about what to choose."

Off, then, to the Northern Ireland thing. Lembit is Northern Irish via Estonia, and has a lovely accent. "Thank you! I've had it all my life, you know!" His parents fled Estonia and the Red Army at the end of the Second World War and settled in Northern Ireland, where Lembit was born and brought up. His father, Uno, was an academic while his grandfather, Ernst, was a great astronomer. I ask Lembit what it was like growing up in Northern Ireland with an umlaut? He says: "It was difficult having a distinctly foreign background. And I didn't learn English until I went to school, so had a strong Estonian accent. But you find coping strategies. Mine was humour!" And the umlaut? A pain? "Many times it would turn into an apostrophe so it was Lembit O'Pik. But I could see the logic of that. It was close enough!" Were you made to feel different? "I do remember my first political debate. It was at school in 1974/5 and I remember Mr McGowan coming in and saying: 'Right boys, we're going to have a debate about the Icelandic cod war.' I put my hand up, as did one of the other boys, Bryson. Mr McGowan said: 'You, Bryson, can do Britain and Öpik, you're foreign, so you do Iceland.' I went on to win by 19 votes to 17!"

He visits Estonia, he says, three or four times a year. Last time, it was for a royal banquet as the Queen was visiting. "I always seem to say stupid things when I meet the Queen, because I'm very pro-monarchy. She said: 'Do you consider this to be home?' I said: 'Not really because Estonia is a republic and I'm a monarchist.' And I thought, why did I say that?! I'm always slightly in awe when I speak to Her Royal Highness." A fortnight later, he says, he had a meeting with Blair about motor neurone disease - his father died of it and he's now President of the Motor Neurone Disease Association - and Blair said to him: "I hear you've been having dinner with the Queen, Lembit." Well, says Lembit, "my jaw dropped. I said: 'That's amazing. Word travels fast. Who told you that?' He said: 'The Queen!' At that moment I felt I was briefly in the inner circle!"

We walk through a labyrinth of corridors and tunnels that will eventually take us into the bowels of the House of Commons. He first became an MP in 1997 and he says he is still excited by it all. "I still sit here in parliament thinking what a privilege it is to do a job as interesting, because you do get to meet the people who are on television. I know I'm on TV as well but I still feel pretty lucky." We pass Charles Kennedy's office. "A great guy," says Lembit. "He's absolutely brilliant. I've got a lot of time for him." Lembit stood right behind Kennedy as leader of the Lib Dems until Kennedy had to go (drink). He then stood right behind Mark Oaten until Mark Oaten had to go (rent boys). Next, he was right behind Simon Hughes until Simon Hughes had to go (denial of his homosexuality). My, he sure knows how to pick a winner, some might think. He is currently right behind Ming. "Ming's in charge so I back Ming, and that's that." This may or may not be good news for Ming.

We attend the committee meeting. Lord, it's dull. Diane Abbott sleeps soundly throughout. Lembit speaks well and eloquently - it appears to be about positive discrimination in the police force - but it isn't sufficient to stir her. He intermittently sends little hand-written notes over to me. They say: "Not much longer!" Or: "We'll soon get back to being more interactive - ie, more time with me!" He does like attention, I think, which may or may not affect his judgement. I ask if he enjoys what fame he has. He says: "I don't go to bed at night thinking about how famous I am, but there is an advantage. If very well-known, you are able to exert a bit more influence in your political activities. You probably carry a bit more clout and people listen more to what you say. On motor neurone disease, for example, my high profile means that the Association has also got a higher profile."

But there is a cost, too, isn't there? As "entertaining" as all the coverage might be, Lembit, don't you feel - hmm, how to put this, being a coward and all that? - don't you feel it diminishes you as a politician? Doesn't it mean that the public takes you less seriously than it might? He gets quite shirty. He says: "What connection is there between my career and Gabi?" It's just the drip, drip effect, I say. "At the end of the day," he says, "the public can tell the difference between serious politics and having a laugh. I'm here to do politics and I'll do my politics with a smile, but I'm deadly serious about the outcomes. We're near to finding a cure to motor neurone disease. That's what's important. That's what will be my legacy." He then says there is no point getting tetchy about the press coverage anyway. "What," he asks, "if you read everywhere that you were engaged to Hugh Grant?" I wouldn't mind, I say, although Daniel Craig or James McAvoy would be better. "OK then," he says. "Say it was Jeffrey Archer. And you read about your engagement everywhere. What would you do about it?" I'd tell them to bugger off, I say. He says: "But you're powerless to stop the stupidity, so why take it seriously?" Because I wouldn't want to be a laughing stock? But Lembit doesn't see it like that. "Sian Lloyd dumped me and I started a new relationship with Gabi. What's the story?" I am imagining their children. It's quite scary but they do have very nice arses. That Gabi has a good arse, doesn't she, Lembit? "Hah," he says. "Imagine if I'd said that!"

We move from the committee to the animal research reception. There is wine and nice sandwiches and those little cocktail sausages, which Lembit seems particularly fond of. Can you cook, Lembit? "I can do kippers, Marmite on toast, porridge. It's not terrible food but it's not going to win an award. I actually did Ready, Steady, Cook and one of the greatest injustices in television history was me defeating the Labour MP Tom Watson in the vote-out at the end, because there's no question that Tom is a much better cook than me. But I did win." Yes, Gabi is a good cook - "She's great at stir fries" - and no, they don't live together. He has a place in London and a house in his constituency, Montgomeryshire. Yes, his mother is very proud of him. "I send her copies of Hansard with my speeches in them, and I know she likes that." He says he must mingle at this reception, but as no one approaches him, we leave quite promptly.

Why politics? I ask. Well, he says, it started at Bristol University, where he studied philosophy, and "where I stood for the presidency of the student union because there were things I wanted to do and do differently. It went from there." He took a job with Proctor and Gamble and moved to Newcastle, where he won a seat on the council. "I got a big kick walking around in my area, thinking, I fixed that pavement, or I got those road humps there, or whatever. They may be small things but they're measurable. I could point to things and say that's happened because of me. That's the kick I get out of politics. So when I got the chance to stand for parliament, it was like, great, I can do even more." He was Independent initially, only throwing in his lot with the Lib Dems when he met Paddy Ashdown in 1989. "I liked him and believed he would make a great Britain if he became Prime Minister." Yup, he sure can pick a winner.

We chat amiably on, somehow managing to miss the meeting of the BBC Group (damn!). We talk about his flying, as he has a pilot's licence - "It can take years, but I got mine in 22 days" - and his musical tastes. He likes folk and plays the harmonica. We talk, too, about books. No, he says, he hasn't read the novel A Brief History of Tractors in the Ukraine, but "everyone tells me I have to read it. It's the kind of thing my friend Andy Kershaw would like as well, so I might get it for him for Christmas." Our time's up. He's due elsewhere. "I enjoyed it," he says, worryingly.

"Tripod", by the way, is ... nope, sorry, too cowardly.