For the first time a Cypriot has recently been elected as an MP in Britain. THEO PANAYIDES meets a self-effacing bookworm who enjoys the quiet life
I’m a little nervous, stepping into the lobby of the Nicosia Hilton on a Thursday morning; I’ve never interviewed a sitting British MP before. I needn’t have worried because Bambos Charalambous is the nicest man, not the least bit intimidating – even despite his rather forbidding appearance: stocky build, dome-shaped forehead, round fleshy face and a rather remarkable pair of hooded, unblinking blue eyes. It’s a look you’d associate more with a street-hardened club owner or shrewd consigliere than the honourable member for Enfield Southgate.
Admittedly, Bambos – the first-ever British MP of full Cypriot descent – has only been in Parliament for a couple of months, having been part of the shock swing to Labour in the recent elections. He himself may have been surprised, though I doubt he’d admit it. The seat has only been Labour three times in its entire history, and the previous incumbent (the Conservative David Burrowes) had been MP since 2005; what’s more, Bambos had tried twice before – unsuccessfully – to be elected, in 2010 and 2015. He credits that 2015 campaign for having raised his profile – “but the big thing was Brexit,” he admits in his measured, affable way, to explain why this time was different: Burrowes was for Leave, the constituency (like most of London, and Bambos himself) are largely Remainers. He smiles and the quick, darting smile is surprisingly sly, seeming to sneak across his features like a whimsical notion before fading back into lugubriousness.
His constituency are also, to a large extent, London Cypriots – which also contributed to his election victory, Bambos being a fellow Cyp and indeed a local lad. At one point I mention that there seems to be an increasing chasm (in Britain, but also worldwide) between elitist, career-minded politicians and the voters they claim to represent, and Bambos looks thoughtful. That may be true in some cases, he allows, but “in my case – you know, I live in the community that I represent. I went to local schools. I grew up amongst them”. People know him when he walks down the street, all the more so since he’s been a local councillor since the mid-90s. “When I’m waiting for a train in the morning, people talk to me at the station. Some people want pictures of me, they want selfies, which I still find hilarious – but I always greet them. I’m delighted that people know who I am, anyway.”
He’s unusual in that regard. Politics, after all, is a career, and prospective MPs go wherever the party sends them, which may be hundreds of miles from their hometown (Bambos himself was initially selected for a whole other constituency, the safely-Tory Epping Forest where he stood, and lost, in 2005). He’s unusual in another way too, as becomes apparent when I ask if he feels pressure to toe the line and always give the ‘right’ answer when asked a question. Is it difficult to always be on-message?
“I think what we saw with Jeremy Corbyn,” he replies slowly, “was that he was un-spun, he was natural, he spoke what he thought. And I think the public are fed up with politicians who are trying to be on-message, and not giving honest answers. So I want to try and be as genuine as I can be, and hopefully people will see that in me. I’m not a very good actor anyway, so I think they’d see through if I wasn’t genuine.”
What kind of person is he?
“Um… I’m naturally quite a shy person. I’m usually very quiet. I’m a good listener, I feel that’s an important skill… And – you know, I don’t like conflict. I try and make friends easily.”
Not the kind of answer you’d expect from a politician – especially one who’s a lawyer by profession, and now finds himself in the often-confrontational crucible of the House of Commons. Yes, admits Bambos, but he was never a trial lawyer. He was actually in the housing litigation department of Hackney Council, so his job was mostly to resolve differences and prevent time-consuming legal battles: “For me, if the case got to trial, then either I’d failed or my opponent had failed”. As for being in Parliament, rival MPs do indeed often clash on the floor of the House – but they also collaborate in committees (he himself hopes to be chosen for the Justice Select Committee, scrutinising the decisions of the Justice Ministry), which is far more important. “There’s always a deal,” Bambos tells me, sounding quite Middle Eastern. “It’s a question of what the terms of the deal should be.”
One such deal is Brexit, which (he says) is looking more like a potential trainwreck every day; given that the UK and EU haven’t even agreed the financial settlement – the money to be paid by the former to the latter – after nine months of trying, “I don’t see how they can possibly have agreed Brexit by March 2019”. Another such deal, of course, is the neverending Cyprus problem, and the flickering hopes for a solution which are currently looking quite faint, post-Crans Montana.
Bambos has been doing lots of interviews during his few days in Cyprus (he was here attending the annual conference of Overseas Cypriots) – and most of them have asked about his views on our national issue, on which he makes all the right noises. “Many of the things that need to be negotiated are very much agreed,” he claims, adding that “the issue of security was discussed for the first time” in the talks, which he feels is a good sign. Is there much he can do, however, as a backbench MP? “Not as such, directly,” he admits – though he’s already asked Theresa May two questions about Cyprus, during her ‘urgent statements to the House’ after attending the Council of Europe and the G20 summit, and hopes he can at least keep the issue alive in Britain. “If I can be helpful in any way – to convey messages, or to speak to people who might be better placed to facilitate things – I can do that,” he concludes, with a touch of desperation.
Let’s be honest: he’s a British politician, not some kind of Cypriot plant in the House of Commons – though his parents were both born here, in the Limassol villages of Fasoula and Kalo Chorio, and he actually speaks decent Greek. Indeed he’s almost bilingual, albeit not entirely happy doing interviews in Greek since a lot of key phrases (“‘economic downturn’, things like that”) come to him in English – but he’s always spoken Greek with his family, his mother’s English being “patchy” even after all these years. It’s the old story of forever being ‘in between’. On the one hand, even Bambos admits that he’s not “fully British”, shaped in part by his culture and upbringing; even some of his fellow MPs doubtless mispronounce his unusual surname (I assume they say ‘ch’ for ‘Charlie’, as opposed to ‘loch’) and he did endure some minor xenophobic bullying in his school days, though admittedly being called a “bubble” (from ‘bubble and squeak’, i.e. Greek) doesn’t sound so traumatic. On the other hand, his actual relationship with Cyprus is mostly limited to holidays and weddings every couple of years.
There’s another kind of deal we could mention: not perhaps an official agreement, but the deal Bambos made with himself as a young man. His A-level subjects tell their own story: Maths, Physics and English Literature, a combination so rare that the retake schedule couldn’t accommodate him when he failed to get the grades he needed – and his plan at the time was to be an engineer, hence Maths and Physics, but he also had a literary streak, hence English Lit. Neither of his parents had been to school past the age of 11 (his dad is a plumber, now semi-retired; his mum worked as a dressmaker), and it’s possible that Bambos, the oldest of three, reflexively went for Engineering as the closest thing to his father’s profession – but in fact, as his friends pointed out, he also loved reading and current affairs, making Law a more logical choice. He ended up swapping Physics for Government Politics, and got into Liverpool Poly for a law degree; like Corbyn – who never even went to university – Bambos is a long way from the Eton-Oxbridge route one associates with British politicians.
It’s unclear where the political ambitions came from – but that, perhaps, was the private pledge he made to himself, to give something back to the community (his parents were always very left-wing and political, albeit “more about Cyprus than in British politics”). He’s not an obvious choice as a politician. He’s not, as he says, a natural show-off, quite the opposite. Asked for his role models, he cites Clement Attlee, whom the much more flamboyant Winston Churchill famously (and perhaps apocryphally) called “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” and “a modest man with much to be modest about” – but Attlee also defeated Churchill in 1945, then laid the foundations for the modern Labour Party (and modern Britain) by establishing the welfare state during his first term in office. “He just got things done,” says Bambos approvingly. “And he didn’t always go for the glory… He was a doer. I like people that do things and get things done.”
And he also likes people to be low-key? He doesn’t like showiness?
“No, I really don’t – which is quite unusual for a politician,” he adds, and the sly smile darts across his face again. “I don’t care who gets the credit for it, as long as things are done”.
His lifestyle seems equally un-showy. ‘Any other passions besides politics?’ I ask, and get a political response (“I’m very passionate about equality”) – but reading, I suppose, counts as a passion, something he’s loved since childhood. He’s now reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the great Japanese novelist’s memoir/meditation on long-distance running, as well as a book of essays by Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose book Capital (broadly suggesting that wealth inequality is bound to increase exponentially unless governments intervene by imposing a wealth tax) became a surprise bestseller in 2013. Bambos also likes theatre, watching football (he’s a Chelsea fan) and hanging out with friends and family, but doesn’t seem to have any obvious vices. “I drink occasionally,” he shrugs, “but if I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol, I wouldn’t miss it.” He’s not even into fine dining, despite living in London.
What did I expect a British MP to be like? Hard to say – but maybe I assumed he’d be more self-important, like our own politicians, rather than a self-effacing bookworm living quietly and taking the train to work every morning. Is he married? “Much to my mother’s horror, I’m not,” replies Bambos humorously. “But, you know, maybe one day I will be.” Some would say he’s left it late – he’ll be 50 in December – but even getting older doesn’t seem to faze him unduly. “I’m thinking ‘Wow, 50, you’re getting on a bit there’,” he admits. “But it’s going to happen. So you’ve got to embrace it.”
50 is definitely middle-aged, though. You can’t really claim to be young anymore.
“But, you know – I’m not young,” he replies simply. “So you have to accept these things. I’m also not old, either! But you’ve got to make the most of your time.”
That, in a nutshell, is what Bambos is doing – especially now, of course, with his career having shot to a new level during what may be a pivotal time in British politics. “I don’t particularly seek any sort of – position of office,” he insists. “If it comes I’d be delighted but I just want to get on with being a backbench MP for now, and do the best I can for my constituents”. In truth, he may be a little too modest: he’s a public figure, after all, and can’t really stay the same person that he was before the election. As an MP, you have influence, he concedes, “and that means a lot more people want to contact you. But, you know, I want to be a force for good, so I want to try and make things happen on the ground, try and make a difference to the community that I represent – and also for Cyprus as well”. Bambos Charalambous, ladies and gentlemen: a politician who can actually claim, en passant, with a straight face, that he wants to be “a force for good” – and is able, in our cynical times, to get away with it. What can I say? He just seems like a nice bloke.