Lembit Opik is famous for many things, a regular panelist on ‘Have I Got News for you’, the MP with the wonky jaw, the man who dated a Cheeky Girl and a TV Weather Girl – the list goes on. In 2016 he even had corrective surgery to realign his ‘crooked’ face, an injury caused by a life-threatening paragliding accident in 1998. Kent Women in Business Editor-in-Chief, Susannah Schofield OBE. interviewed Lembit after she was interviewed by him on his BBC Radio Kent show. Her mission: to get to know this political maverick, and reveal the man who used to have Britain’s most famous crooked smile.
‘My worst habit is over-promising, and then ending up letting people down because I can’t do it all. Then I tend to go quiet, like a shy child, and avoid those people. It’s pathetic really.’ This unexpectedly candid response was to my question about what Lembit regards as his worst habit. ‘Once people know this, they can at least deal with it, can’t they?’ he adds in what sounds almost like a question seeking assurance, but I can see he’s not even convincing himself. ‘Putting off dealing with extreme emotional situations is certainly something I don’t like about myself at all.’ That’s the contradictory thing about Lembit Öpik. Much has been written about him, some of it intensely derisory or offensive, portraying a self-deluded would-be ladies’ man with a goofy reputation. His disarmingly self-critical directness surprises me.
OK, I decide, I’ll keep it direct. Does he feel his life has been a success? He seems comfortable with the question, suggesting he’s thought about this before. ‘Define success. I’m proud of certain achievements. Getting my pilot’s licence, for example. I raised money (by which, it turns out, he means literally millions of pounds!) as President of the Motor Neurone Disease Association. That condition killed my father. I also helped negotiate the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement when I was Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I grew up during ‘The Troubles’ and working to stop the killing was the most important thing I did as an MP.’ And why the pilot’s licence? ‘I’ve always loved flying – and I even ran an air taxi service for some years. But I’m too busy to run that business now and flying myself around is far too expensive for me these days.’
How does Lembit organise a successful working day? ‘I don’t do that too well. It’s like going into an ‘all you can eat’ restaurant, loading up your plate with a food called work and then realising even a herd of goats couldn’t chew through it all. It’s back to that over-commitment thing again. I often get up around 5am, do the (BBC Radio Kent) show, then public affairs assignments, then other things. I bounce around all day trying to keep everyone happy. I’ve a work-work balance, not a work-life one. Fortunately, I have one thing in common with Margaret Thatcher…’ at which point Lembit digresses to describe Thatcher as Britain’s worst ever Prime Minister with some examples, before returning to his theme. ‘…anyway, like Thatcher, I need about four hours sleep a night. But that’s the only similarity. Unlike her, I don’t intend to go barking mad and wreck the country.’ Are such strong views allowed in broadcasting? ‘Let’s not pretend. Every current affairs broadcaster has views. The duty is to leave those views at the studio door, with the self-discipline of remembering you’re there to explore ideas, not promote them.’ Is that possible? Lembit becomes animated, waving his hands questioningly. ‘What do we need in a studio? A person who knows nothing about the subjects? That simply wouldn’t work. It would reduce current affairs reporting to superficial mush, and some television programming in particular is already dumbed down like that. I aim to be fun without being facile.’
Back to that work-life balance. What does he do when he’s not working 9 to 5? ‘Before 9, I’m working. After 5, I’m also working. I feel comfortable when I’m at work. I do a lot of writing and cinema is a lifelong interest – I’ve made some short films. But mainly there’s not much slack in the diary.’ There’s a consistency in his answers, I’ll give him that. ‘Oh, and I do absolutely love doing after dinner speeches. I do quite a few a year – and it’s something I get a great deal of enjoyment from. So if anyone in Kent needs a speaker, they just need to ask.’
We canter through a series of questions I have for him. If Lembit had £100 how would he spend it? ‘Going out – film, food and beverages. I prefer to buy experiences, not property.’ What did he want to be when he was young, and why? ‘A pilot – even when I was six years old. In 1971 I saw Concorde on the tarmac in Heathrow Airport as we were leaving for Malaga, and I was sold on flying. I never made it as far as a commercial licence but I got close.’
What was the last thing Lembit read that deeply impacted on him? ‘Starman – a biography of Yuri Gagarin, the Russian Cosmonaut who was the first human ever to go into space. It was inspirational – and also melancholy. The global stardom from his historic flight ultimately became too much for him. I feel lucky the public profile I’ve had has been incidental rather than intentional. In my case a lot of the coverage has been libelous and deliberately rude, even about my wonky face. People who chase fame don’t realise the acidity that comes with it. When I meet people for the first time I can tell if they’ve Googled me; and if they haven’t I advise them not to.’
What is the most difficult situation Lembit has encountered? He gets more serious. ‘Physically it was a paragliding accident in April 1998. The wind changed or I screwed up or both and I fell 30 metres and broke my back in 12 places. To survive, I had to walk an agonising mile with my friend Rob Burridge’s help – with that broken back. It was touch and go. He saved my life that day, but I was a mess. My jaw was broken, though the other injuries were so bad they didn’t spot that for almost a week. I’ve had a lot of surgery, but I’m lucky to be alive and I’ve never forgotten that. I visit a hospital every few weeks, and I’m supremely grateful for the NHS.’ Lembit pauses, clearly weighing up whether to add something. ‘Emotionally,’ he pauses again, looking obliged rather than motivated to continue, ‘it was the break up with Gabriella, the Cheeky Girl. People have often mocked that relationship, but it was authentic, and heartbreaking when it ended – at least for me. That has always been a regret, and I’m still affected by it.’
There’s a reflectiveness in his tone as we talk about the coverage, media interest and derision. ‘I know my desire to see the best in others makes me a bit naïve. I’m surprised when people are mean or take advantage. That’s still something I deal with often. So, one hard experience broke my back, the other broke my heart.’ It’s obvious there’s more to ask, but he is a little more subdued now, and I don’t want to push it too far.
On to safer ground. Who is Lembit’s business role model? ‘A man called John Hardy – my first boss at soap powder company Procter & Gamble. His combination of principle and focus were frighteningly effective. I still see him from time to time – and he’s done very well in the television industry. He’s got strengths I lack and admire.’ We get talking about where Lembit’s own career is taking him. ‘I’m very happy in broadcasting and public affairs. The BBC Radio Kent folks have a supreme standard of professionalism and I’ve learned so much. The public affairs involves the Motorcycle Action Group which is all about the freedom to ride motorbikes: and I help an international robot company which delivers food and shopping in a robotic box with wheels. It’s called Starship. So there’s a lot going on.’ Was all this planned? ‘Nope. But I knew it was the right pathway for me.’ Any good business tips? ‘Yes, and it’s relevant to what I’ve just said. Know your goal – or in the words of the late, great Stephen R. Covey: begin with the end in mind. Then, even if you don’t do it perfectly, you are doing the right things – far better than doing wrong things well. I realised that my aim was to help people be the best they can be, including myself. Knowing this is better than drifting through life seeking purpose. I don’t always achieve that though, and those closest to me suffer the consequences – I wish I could say I always heeded the advice about remembering my own good advice.’ It’s a curious comment and I ask him to expand. He looks briefly out the window and the breezy day outside, then back at me. ‘I maybe should have got married and had a family around 20 years ago. Of course, that would have led to a different course of events. What held me back was a fear of commitment. It was very hard on my girlfriend and I never blamed her for leaving shortly after that. I drifted out of that relationship because I didn’t have clarity of purpose about it. Looking back, I deserved what I got – or didn’t get, to be precise.’ I sense Lembit’s personal relationships have not turned out as he would have hoped? ‘Yes, that’s fair comment. I could have had grown up children by now. Instead, I have mice… and I’m even trying to get rid of them.’
Does Lembit ever take a holiday from all this worrying? ‘Sort of. I travel a lot with work, and travel is inspirational to me – whether it’s a flight or train journey. Estonia, where my parents come from, is a regular destination. Usually, if I take a holiday, it’s just three days. I almost prefer travelling to arriving. That probably says something about me psychologically, but there it is. If I had to choose one holiday destination it’s Marrakesh, which has not yet become like everywhere else. In Marrakesh you’re truly abroad, not just in another corporate shopping mall.’
Does he miss politics? ‘What I do now is politics without the confrontation. Public affairs and radio are still about big issues – policies, law, society – but without the personal competition which I never really enjoyed.’ Our conversation then takes an unexpected theological turn. ‘What really matters in life is not so much about an earthly legacy, is it?’ A fatalistic thought, I suggest. ‘Why? Death’s inevitable. I’m 51. My brother died at 37. Accepting our own mortality gives perspective.’ I’m prompted to ask if he’s an atheist. ‘No. Without a higher power, the Universe would be random and meaningless. That would be a shame.’ I’m trying to figure out how we got from politics to religion – two traditional taboos in polite conversation, but he’s undeterred. ‘Spirituality gets sidelined, because stuff like X-Factor is louder and less demanding. But we’re back to the fame game again, and I doubt celebrity is a big player in the Afterlife, except perhaps in rare cases like Elvis, and possibly the Pope.’
We’ve talked for a long time. The recurring themes hint at someone who smiles on the outside and worries on the inside, who aims for the best but privately conjures with worst case scenarios. Lembit is demonstrably successful in so many fields – only some of which we’ve even discussed (what about the wrestling, the stand-up comedy, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and Have I Got News for You?). But there’s also something deeper and less defined. What three words would Lembit use to describe himself? He clearly takes my invitation seriously. ‘The long version is that probably because of my refugee roots there’s a subconscious foreboding I don’t seem able to overcome.’ And the short version? ‘How about: sympathetic, self-critical, searching.’ He looks at me for approval. I tell him his words sound like a fair assessment: as if to prove the point, he says.
‘honestly, there’s a lot to criticise about me. I can give you a few expert witnesses on that.’
Contrary to some reports – so don’t Google him – Lembit Öpik is funny, curiously honest about himself and deeply connected with the human condition – in a way you sense without him spelling it out. I suspect that he’s also someone who finds it easier to explore ideas, entertain crowds and secure solace for others than he is it at finding it for himself. Maybe that’s the price he feels he must pay for a life less ordinary – and more intense – than most.