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Sunday 29 January 2006

After dumping a drunk, the Lib Dems stumble all over the place

AS THE Liberal Democrats vie with George Galloway for the title of Political Joke of the Year, it's our own Lembit Opik I feel most sorry for.

Born in 1965 in Bangor, Co Down, to Estonian asylum-seekers, Lembit was schooled in Belfast, and in 1997 became a Lib Dem MP for a Welsh constituency and their spokesman on Northern Ireland.

Lembit is just the kind of person people vaguely - but wrongly - think of as a typical Lib Dem. He's a libertarian, a non-hunter who fought valiantly against the fox-hunting ban. He seems slightly dotty - he plays the harmonica, is passionate about motorbikes and attracts puerile jokes because he goes on a lot about protecting the earth against asteroids.

He's brave - he makes little fuss about having broken his back in 12 places, as well as his ribs, sternum and jaw when seven years ago he had a paragliding accident; and although I've never seen him wear sandals, Lembit looks like the type who would.

Being single at 40, there were gay rumours about him until his engagement to celebrity Weathergirl Sian Lloyd.

Lembit is decent, loyal and morally courageous almost to a fault. He was the only frontbencher to defend Charles Kennedy against calls for him to retire over his alcoholism.

Condemning those who had "violated the values of the party" in their treatment of Kennedy, Lembit told the BBC: "It has been the political equivalent of self-harming in the last few weeks."

With a dreadful inevitability, Lembit agreed to run Mark Oaten's leadership campaign. He was the only MP at his launch and was disappointed when Oaten withdrew from the race on the grounds that his support among party members "had not been matched by my colleagues in parliament, apart from the very loyal support I've had from Lembit Opik".

Three days later, Oaten became famous for three-in-a-bed-sex with gay prostitutes which included "bizarre sex acts too revolting" for the prim News of the World to describe. Even the normally voluble Lembit was reduced to saying Oaten should be given "space".

Pressurised on Tuesday to say whom he now supported, Lembit stalled: "There's a new phenomenon called the curse of Lembit. After supporting Charles Kennedy for leader at the beginning of the year and Mark Oaten more recently, everyone is worried that my support might be the kiss of death."

But being the serious person he is, he had talks with his next preferred candidate, Simon Hughes, and, allegedly, was to declare his support on Thursday. Unfortunately, by then the Sun had evidence that Hughes had used gay chatlines, so he had to come out. "A second Limp Dem confesses" was the headline.

According to the Hughes4Leader website, a Westminster insider said: "The curse of Opik has struck again. This will be the third MP he has destabilised in almost as many days. It really beggars belief that that weather girl he's doing lets him out of the house at all."

Seriously - and the party is such a joke now that it's hard to take it seriously - its condition is dire. A Daily Telegraph poll on Friday showed the Lib Dems down from 23 per cent at the May 2005 General Election to 13 per cent now; only 29 per cent thought them a credible force in British politics; and 55 per cent of Lib Dem voters didn't know whether the stately safe-pair-of-hands, Sir Menzies Campbell; the populist Hughes or the dark horse, the intellectual Chris Huhne, would make the best leader.

All this uproar and collapse in the polls is only incidentally about drink and sex. It's quite OK these days to be openly gay in the House of Commons, and Hughes will be forgiven if it's accepted that he lied to protect his octogenarian religious mother.

Oaten is in much worse trouble because he played the family card and has been branded as a hypocrite, although insiders know he has behaved like many politicians. Politicians often like to live life on the edge. (Remember Emmet Stagg in Phoenix Park all those years ago?)

Much more important is that the departure of genial, popular Kennedy revealed that his ability to be all-things-to-all-men had hidden two truths: that the party is split between left and right, and that Lib Dems are as ruthless, ambitious and fallible as any other MP.

What, disillusioned people are asking, is the point of its continued existence?

With David Cameron targeting the Lib Dem right and Gordon Brown its left, the curse of Lembit may lead to his party crashing and burning as comprehensively as one of his asteroids.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards