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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 13:33 GMT
Lembit Ípik: Northern Ireland spokesman

By BBC Wales's political correspondent Rhun ap Iorwerth

Chat shows, satire shows, even cookery programmes... take a glance through the list of star guests that have graced our screens on any of these, and the chances are that Lembit Ípik will be among them.

He survived - no, enjoyed - Merton, Deaton and Hislop's den of quips and put-downs that is "Have I got News for You" not once, but twice.

After becoming Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire in 1997, he quickly found himself a niche. Intellect and light entertainment hand in hand. Have wit, will travel.

And he has done his share of travelling. Mid-Wales is the latest stop on a long trail.


There's no doubting Lembit Ípik's political ambitions

He is tipped by many as a future party leader


Rhun ap Iorwerth
His family's trail began in Estonia. His parents arrived as refugees in Northern Ireland, where Lembit Ípik was born and brought up.

Higher education took him to Bristol. His career took him to the north east of England.

That is where his party political career began, firstly as Liberal Democrat Councillor on Newcastle City Council.

He made a bid for one of the city's Westminster seats in the 1992 general election, then turned his sights to the European Parliament, contesting Northumbria two years later.

His big political break came when the former Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire, Alex Carlile, announced before the 1997 general election that he wanted to quit.

Lembit Ípik charmed the local party, secured its support and then turned his attention to charming the voters.

He was at last on the right path to front-line politics - and chat-show stardom.

Many of his political interests have reflected his background and the nature of his constituency.

Rural MP

As an MP from rural mid-Wales, he has been a prominent voice in the debate on fox-hunting - a leader of the 'Middle-Way' group opposing the outright banning of hunting with dogs.

He became the party's Northern Ireland spokesman in the Commons, drawing on his personal experience of observing Ulster politics close-up.

If off-beat TV appearances mark him out from the Westminster crowd, so does another political interest - asteroids.

Again he draws from his background here - his grandfather was an eminent Estonian astronomer.

The world is in danger of being hit by asteroids, he says, and once in the Commons he started a one-man Parliamentary campaign to save the human race from extinction.

The bigger political picture sees Lembit Ípik a firm advocate of closer links with Labour.

He has not always been of that view, though.

Early in his political career, he was concerned about the negative aspects of association with Labour.

Now he says he sees politics as "a competition not a war" - and wants the parties to co-operate on common goals and compete on issues of disagreement.

There's no doubting Lembit Ípik's political ambitions. He's tipped by many as a future party leader.

Parliamentary inexperience prevented him from standing against Charles Kennedy for the top job last time around, and as he is only 36 this year, he has time on his side.

In the short term, though, is the issue of the leadership of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Paragliding

Richard Livsey, the party's only other MP in Wales, retires at the general election, leaving Lembit Ípik as the party's campaign leader in Wales by default.

Post-election, if he is re-elected, the party will have to make a decision on a new leader, possibly even changing the rules which currently state the party's leader must be Westminster - not Assembly-based.

He was lucky to survive a serious paragliding accident three years ago - he lists that as one of his extra-political hobbies.

If he is to fulfil his political ambitions, he will first have to survive the test of the Montgomeryshire election as he defends the seat for the first time.

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