Where next for Lembit?

by Stephen Tall on July 30, 2009

There’s a slightly plaintive piece in today’s Independent’s Pandora column under the self-explanatory heading, ‘Opik’s plea to Clegg: use me’. The paper quotes the Lib Dem MP for Montgomeryshire saying:

I’m certainly available to the party in any way they want me, and that’s a matter for them.

This all follows Lembit’s latest appearance in the spotlight since he joined forces with model Katie Green to front the ‘Give a big zero to size zero’ campaign. The trouble is, as so often with Lembit, that the celebrity gossip prompted by his friendship/relationship/whatever with Katie has overshadowed the worthy cause he is supposed to be promoting. And, as so often, far from tamping down the speculation and gossip, Lembit appears to thrive on it, telling The Guardian:

It’s very flattering that everyone wants to speculate about it. It’s understandably interesting from a gossip prospective but we are more interested in promoting the campaign about dangerous severe weight loss fuelled by the misguided idea of what’s beautiful and that being anorexically thin is attractive.”

But he is not disabusing me of the notion they are in a relationship, I suggest. “Well, we’re not engaged,” he says. “You could have a very philosophical discussion about what is a relationship.”

It is exactly these kind of nudge-nudge statements which drive those of us who genuinely admire Lembit’s talents – and I very much count myself among their number – to distraction. I have no doubt that Lembit believes he does a lot of good for the Lib Dems and the serious campaigns he is involved with – from ‘Big Zero’ to motor neurone disease – through attracting such publicity.

Yet the overall impression is of a bit of a joker, a wildcard eccentric, the type of guy you’d like to have a drink with, but not want in charge of anything that matters. And his in-touch-with-the-public schtick took a battering from his rather disastrous appearance on Radio 5 Live, attacking the Telegraph and defending his expenses.

Which leaves Lembit, and the party, with a bit of a dilemma. Here we have a politician capable of inspiring the public, a terrific speaker, a passionate liberal, a clever guy. Yet he’s also saddled at the moment with the label, ‘A bit of an embarrassment’. Which is a real shame, but the truth. Be honest, if you were Nick Clegg, would you be thinking right now of appointing Lembit to a high-profile post on the party’s front bench?

Lib Dem blogger James Graham pondered all this back in December, and came up with the most constructive answer to the Lembit problem: that he should embrace technology and take himself online. After all, it’s done wonders for both Alistair Campbell and John Prescott, two other figures perceptions of whom are being altered by their web-presence. To quote James’s conclusion:

So what I’d really like to see in 2009 is a Lembit Opik blog to put us all in our places. If Lembit is right, then such a blog would climb to prominence quite quickly. What’s more, it would bridge the gap between the programmes he appears on and his politics. He’d win, his critics would be proven wrong but wouldn’t mind and the party would gain a major new asset. So how about it?

It’s not too late, Lembit. Do it, for your sake as well as the party’s.