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'Gossip mag' Opik loses presidential bid

8 November 08 19:03 GMT

By Arif Ansari
BBC Westminster

The race for the presidency of the Liberal Democrats has not quite garnered the same international attention as its US equivalent, but it has been contested with a similar degree of passion, even venom.

The vote though might well be remembered more for who lost, than for who won.

In the running were two relative unknowns and one all-too-well-known.

The winner was Baroness Ros Scott, the former group leader of Suffolk County Council. Businessman Chandila Fernando promised to modernise the party's machinery.

And the most recognised name of the three, Lembit Opik, offered a presidency painted in "primary colours".

The party leader, Nick Clegg, will be sighing with relief.

It was widely thought that Baroness Scott was his preferred candidate. In fact, the deputy leader Vince Cable officially endorsed her.

Probably, it was less a burning desire to work with the baroness, than a desperation to avoid Mr Opik.

Despite his wit, intelligence and communication skills, the leadership barely attempted to hide its antipathy to the MP for Montgomeryshire.

Suggestions of a Stop Lembit! campaign provoked him to publish an extraordinary statement.

"If anyone is conspiring against me I ask them to stop a moment and consider this. I reach beyond the normal political barricades to real people in real homes living real lives.

"And sure there's a risk, but there's a bigger risk if we just carry on doing everything the same way, like we've always done.

"Let's take the exciting path, the road less travelled. The one which can lead us to government."

Influential post

For the last few years, Mr Opik has been a staple of gossip magazines as he dated the weather forecaster, Sian Lloyd, before moving on to Cheeky Girl, Gabriela Irimia, who later dumped him.

That was a brand of excitement Nick Clegg probably thought he could do without. Not least because the party president is actually an influential post.

The main job is to run the party, though day-to-day management is contracted out to the chief executive. The president ensures the views of the membership are reflected up to the leader.

Simon Hughes, who has been in the post for four years, had to deal with the resignations of Sir Menzies Campbell and his predecessor Charles Kennedy, who admitted to a drink problem.

"I didn't want Charles to go when he did," says Hughes.

"I encouraged him to stay. But there was a growing argument in the party for him to stand down. And I had to tell him that."

If Nick Clegg is ever forced out, he is more likely to get his marching orders from Baroness Scott than Lembit Opik, and that might prove easier to take.

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