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Norman for Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 06:51 07 April 2014

Norman Lamb MP, pictured at Blakeney Hotel.
PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Norman Lamb MP, pictured at Blakeney Hotel. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2014

He is Norfolk’s only minister of state, in charge of adult social care nationwide, and the man who turned the north of the county from blue to yellow.

Norman Lamb had not planned to become a politician, had not expected to become a minister – and had never thought of himself as Norfolk’s most senior MP until now.

“It’s a bit of a horrifying thought really!” he says. “I have always felt a bit like the outsider.”

I catch up with him in Blakeney, where he has just given the keynote speech for a conference of Norfolk teachers. It is the only time he has free for a fortnight, and even here he is spotted and handed a letter. Then a party worker pops in with a list of people to call on while in the area.

In the past few weeks he has been shepherding the new Care Bill through Parliament and seen parts of his North Norfolk constituency inundated by the worst tidal surge on record.

It’s exhausting just to hear his timetable, but also easy to see how Norman has won so many friends, despite the tightrope he balances between manifesto promises and the reality of coalition; between shaping national law and dealing with constituency issues. He has that gift of charismatic people – making it seem that, right now, there are no other commitments jostling for his time.

It is the attitude that helped overturn a 15,000 majority, over 11 years and three elections. It has also caught national attention and Norman has even been tipped as a future Lib Dem leader.

He’s heard the rumours, from a political betting expert, but insists: “It’s just absolutely not on my radar at all.”

“It never, ever crossed my mind that I would be a minister. From a personal point of view, as a Liberal Democrat, you never think you would become a minister. It’s not part of your mindset.”

But here he is, wrestling with huge national issues like care costs for the elderly and provision for people with mental illnesses.

He is proud of the work, but just as proud of his role as a constituency MP.

“Lots of people come to you with extremely difficult problems and they have been banging their heads against a brick wall and got nowhere and you can help.”

He had been a partner in a Norwich law firm, and a city councillor, before deciding to make politics a career.

There was never any idea of using North Norfolk as a starter constituency to spring him to a safe seat. He went to school in Wymondham, lives in Norwich and, asked to pick his very favourite part of the county, looks out of the window across shimmering saltmarshes and says: “Blakeney is one of them. You can walk 100 metres away from the carpark and you on your own”

“I live in Norfolk and I want to stay in Norfolk so the only option was to try to create my own chance here,” he says. “But in my naivety, I did think I could do it. I stood with the intention of winning. It was a bit of a ridiculous proposition really!”

“It was 11 years of solid effort and the reality of it means that on a wet November evening, three years out from an election, you are driving to a public meeting in a village hall. It’s winning people one by one, house by house, street by street.”

That process paved the way to ever greater responsibilities and, as part of a coalition government, dilemmas and compromises. But for Norman, the positives outweigh the negatives.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity, albeit at a difficult time when you get a lot flak and criticism,” he explains. “It’s genuinely a privilege to have this chance. You have to keep pinching yourself that you are doing it!

“I’m likely to have a limited time with this opportunity and that makes you all the more determined to achieve something.”

He has been Parliamentary private secretary to deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg and former party leader Charles Kennedy and chief of staff to another party leader, Sir Menzies Campbell but says: “The key is to keep your feet very, very firmly on the ground.

“Mary is the guardian of that because if ever there was a danger of me getting above myself I would be very, very soon brought down to ground.”

He and Mary, a vicar’s daughter from Loddon, celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary this year. She has worked for the bereavement charity Cruse for the past 10 years and previously served as a county councillor herself.

“I wouldn’t have achieved this without her,” said Norman.

The couple have two grown-up sons. Famously, the eldest, Archie, now 26, was still in his teens when he co-founded a music management company and signed Tinchy Stryder.

Tinchy soared to number one and even now the Minister of State for Care and Support listens to urban grime. “On my iphone I have got a total mix, from urban to classical. I love world music, I love some of the stuff Archie brings home...”

Norman is also a life-long Norwich City supporter and a sportsman himself, completing runs and cycle rides for various charities.

Three generations of his family before him were university professors and his father, Hubert, was a world-renowned climate scientist at the University of East Anglia.

Sitting in Blakeney, with the effects of the tidal surge all too evident, Norman says: “Back in 1976 there was a very, very hot summer. It didn’t rain for weeks and the fields were parched. I remember dad being interviewed outside at UEA in his shorts. At the time he wasn’t convinced that man was affecting climate change but he might have been by now because the evidence is stacking up.

“He stood there on this hot summer’s day in Norfolk saying that in years to come we could see whole cities going under water, maybe not here but certainly around the world.”

For Norman, holding back that sea of blue could become both literal and political.

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