British Liberal Democrat Politician
Described by The Sun newspaper as an "extra-terrestrial expert and Lib Dem big cheese", Lembit Öpik is the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire and the party's shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales.
Lembit Öpik was born in Bangor, County Down in Northern Ireland on the 2nd March 1965. His grandfather Ernst Julius Öpik (1893-1985) was an Estonian born astronomer who had fled the country of his birth together with his family in 1944 to escape the Soviet army (1) and ended up in Northern Ireland in 1948, having found work at the Armagh Observatory. Lembit was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and later went to University of Bristol where he read philosophy and gained a 2.1 in 1987. He was president of University of Bristol Union for the 1985-1986 academic year and was subsequently a member of the national executive of the National Union of Students in 1987-1988. He graduated from student life to work for Procter and Gamble in Newcastle-upon-Tyne as a brand assistant although, as his official biography puts it he "moved from developing brands to developing people", being appointed Corporate Training and Organisation Development Manager in 1991 and promoted to Global Human Resources Training Manager in 1996.
Active within the local Liberal Democrats, Lembit was elected to the party's Federal Executive Committee in 1991 and subsequently stood for election at Newcastle Central in the 1992 General Election where he came third, although he managed to get himself elected to Newcastle City Council in the same year. He later stood as an unsuccesful candidate for Northumbria in the 1994 elections to the European Parliament. His real opportunity came when Alex Carlile, the sitting Liberal Democrat member for Montgomeryshire, decided that it was time for him to retire, and in September 1996 Lembit was chosen as his successor and was duly returned at the General Election of May 1997.
Lembit's political career and much else besides might so easily have come to an early end. On the 13th April 1998 he was para-gliding in his constituency when he lost control and plummeted some eighty feet into a Welsh mountain, breaking his back in twelve places, as well as breaking his jaw, sundry ribs and other bits and pieces. By some miracle Lembit somehow survived unscathed but it explains his later keen interest in the Spinal Injuries Association.
Of course one of the advantages of being a Liberal Democrat is rapid promotion within the parliamentary ranks. As soon as he joined the House of Commons he became the party's spokesperson on Education and Employment in 1997 although within a few months he transferred his attentions to Northern Ireland and Youth (1997-2001) followed by a promotion to the Liberal Democrat Shadow Cabinet with responsibility for Wales, Northern Ireland and youth affairs (2001-2005), before assuming his current responsibility of shadowing the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales. Of course Montomeryshire is a largely rural constituency and it was therefore natural that Lembit was a member of the Agriculture Select Committee during the 2001-2005 Parliament, although since the 2005 General Election he has sat on the Northern Ireland Grand Select Committee in the House of Commons
He was closely involved with the Middle Way Group, a cross-party parliamentary group which supported the regulation, not banning, of fox hunting, and has campaigned on such issues of local importance as the future of the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and measures to combat the risks of flooding in his constituency. Lembit himself has claimed his proudest achievement is the "invisible but essential casework that every MP does", although he does also cite his role in the campaign for an independent investigation into the series of deaths at the Deepcut Army Barracks.
Lembit clearly harbours some ambition to advance within the party: in 2001 he became the Leader of the Democratiaid Rhyddfrudol Cymru (Welsh Liberal Democrats) and later campaigned to become President of the Liberal Democrats, but was comprehensively outvoted by his opponent Simon Hughes by a margin of almost three to one in September 2004.
Ever since he first entered Parliament Lembit has been banging on about the threat posed to the planet by near-earth objects, an obsession that may well have something to do with the fact that his grandfather was an astronomer and even has an asteroid 2099 Opik named in his honour. Lembit got very excited when it was repported that the near-Earth object 2002 NT7 might well be on a collision course and strike the planet on the 1st February 2019. "I have said for years that the chances of this asteroid having an impact which could wipe out most of the human race is 100%" he informed a reporter before admitting that actually near-Earth object 2002 NT7 would miss the Earth by a good 600,000 miles or so.
He has however faced accusations that he has a tendency to sensationalise the issue and is believed to have an arrangement with the journalist Nigel Nelson of the Sunday tabloid The People, by which they regularly collaborate on an asteroid-threat story every month or so, which no doubt helps Lembit raise his public profile. Neverthless his tireless campaigning was partially responsible for the government's decision, announced on the 4th January 2000, to establish a Task Force on Near-Earth Objects to assess the threat posed by orbiting rocks. It was presumably a disappointment to him that the Task force recommended that the proposed Near Earth Objects Information Centre be established at the National Space Science Centre in Leicester rather than the Spaceguard UK facility which is conveniently (and entirely coincidentally) located near the town of Knighton in his own constituency.
The curse of Opik
When questions began to be raised towards the end of 2005 within the party regarding the suitability of Charles Kennedy as Liberal Democrat party leader, Lembit emerged as the most vocal defender of his leader, going on record in December 2005 to condemn the "cowardly" Anti-Kennedy briefings that were taking place and praising Kennedy as "the most successful party leader we've had for 83 years"(2). Kennedy was subsequently forced to admit that he did indeed have a problem with alcohol and stood down as party leader. Lembit then threw his weight behind the candidacy of one Mark Oaten claiming that he was "the right man for the job". Sadly he was not to know that Mr Oaten was in the throes of a mid-life crisis which had manifested itself in a rather bizarre fashion and when revelations regarding Oaten's private life became public knowledge and he too was forced to withdraw from the contest.
Thereafter Lembit was strangely silent on the subject of the leadership and it isn't clear which of the remaining candidates he supported. Indeed his failure to publicly endorse the eventual winner Menzies Campbell led to speculation that he might lose his front bench position, although in the end Campbell confirmed him in his post on the 8th March 2006.
Lembit has found love in the arms of Siân Lloyd, ITV weather presenter and star of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, who describes him as "the most fascinating man I've ever met". The couple apparently met at the engagement party of BBC political correspondent Guto Harri, and since pairing up they have become something of a 'celebrity couple' and have twice been featured in Hello! magazine as well as making a number of television appearances together. They announced their engagement in 2004 and were going to get married in 2005 and had picked a date (5th October 2005) and a venue (Powys Castle) before the General Election was announced and Lembit decided that it was impossible for him to "spend time on the plans". A winter wedding was promised, but was apparently derailed by the death of his brother Endel who suffered a fatal heart attack 21st November 2005 at the age of only thirty-seven. To date there are still no signs of the impending nuptials, and Ms Lloyd has been forced to dismiss rumours of a split as "absolute nonsense".
(1) As a fervent anti-communist and a former volunteer in the White Russian army it must be presumed that Ernst feared that he would be first up against the wall when the Soviet tanks rolled into Talinn. Which of course he very probably would have been.
(2) An odd comment in some ways since the Liberal Democrats have not been in existence that long. However they do like to see themselves as the successors to the old Liberal Party, and thus the reference to David Lloyd-George who split the Party in 1916 and condemned it to political obscurity for eighty-three years.
- Official biographies at
- Lembit Opik's conference blog
- MP 'vindicated' by asteroid warning 24 July, 2002
- Opik hangs on to front bench jobs 8 March 2006
- MP postpones weather girl wedding, 7th April 2005
- Lucy Cavendish 'I never wanted marriage' Evening Standard 31.07.06
- Weather girl Sian denies love split Oct 28 2006