“We can’t run away from Brexit”: Labour MP Bambos Charalambous warns his party

The new MP for Enfield Southgate on how he won a Tory seat, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and being a celebrity in Cyprus.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Enfield Southgate is an iconic location in election night history. It was this suburban tip of north London that played host to 1997’s “Portillo moment”, when the then Defence Secretary Michael Portillo – tipped to be Tory leader – lost his seat in a shock defeat. Stephen Twigg, the Labour candidate who won with a 17.4 per cent swing, became the rather stunned face of Labour’s landslide.

Twenty years later, the constituency went unexpectedly to Labour again. Bambos Charalambous, a local councillor for 23 years who attended the ’97 count, defeated the Conservative David Burrowes who had been MP there since 2005.

As the first MP of full Cypriot descent, Charalambous has been warmly invited into the BME MPs’ WhatsApp group. But he doesn’t have an office yet, so he’s squatting in his old friend Twigg’s office. Luckily, as a housing lawyer, “I know my rights,” he jokes. He was a solicitor on Hackney Council’s housing litigation team until he was elected.

We settle instead at a table in Parliament’s glass-walled Portcullis House. Charalambous – whose full name is so wonderful that the Huffington Post points out you can sing it to “Copacabana” and “Mambo Italiano” – looks smart in a suit and silky maroon tie. He is also very tanned; he took his parents on holiday to Rome at the beginning of the campaign – booked for their anniversary before the election was called.

“I’m very popular in Cyprus at the moment”

Brought up in Enfield, which has a large Cypriot community, Charalambous has lived there all his life. He’s now a bit of a local celebrity; his friends and family have started taking pictures with him at every opportunity.

“I’m very popular in Cyprus at the moment,” he says, rather deadpan. “It’s a bit surreal when your relatives are asking for selfies with you. My cousin had a christening a couple of weeks ago, and my cousins and uncles and aunts wanted selfies with me. I was like, ‘Are you guys insane? You’ve got pictures of me wearing shorts and stuff!’ So it’s quite amusing.”

To be fair, they’ve been waiting a while to celebrate. Charalambous ran for the seat in 2010 and 2015, but couldn’t beat the Tories. And abysmal polling for Labour initially suggested this wouldn’t change.

“People told me at the start of the campaign, ‘you’re mad, you shouldn’t run, you’re going to ruin your reputation’,” he reveals. “I was like, ‘I don’t care what you say, I’ve run before and I think I deserve to give it another go, and you never know what’s going to happen’.”

“I was initially sceptical about Jeremy. I’m happy to say I’ve been proved wrong”

He won the seat by 4,355 votes, with a swing of 9.7 per cent, and gives a variety of reasons for his victory. Firstly, he was a Remainer running in a pro-EU seat (63 per cent voted Remain) against a Brexiteer Tory. He also found “young people enthused” by the campaign and “dragging” their parents out to vote, which he hadn’t seen before. Local schools are facing budget cuts, and he felt the Tories’ “complacency” about the problem harmed them electorally.

But he also has Jeremy Corbyn to thank. “The manifesto was fantastic,” he says. “I think Jeremy as the leader, he came into his own during the election period and his stature just grew and grew and he will be a credible Prime Minister . . . through the television debates, people could finally see he could answer questions directly. He wasn't fazed by them, and gave good answers and had something to say. He also gave a vision of hope and optimism.”

Although Charalambous supported Andy Burnham to be Labour leader in 2015, he now gives Corbyn his “100 per cent support”. “I didn’t have a problem with the policies. I was initially sceptical about whether Jeremy could be a strong, credible leader,” he admits. “Clearly he is. I’m happy to say I’ve been proved wrong . . . If there were an election tomorrow, or in a few months down the line, Jeremy will be Prime Minister.”

Charalambous says a lot of his constituents who are EU nationals, or have European partners, are worried about their future. He will be focusing on this, and says Brexit should “clearly” be a priority for Labour. He warns his party that, “we can’t run away from Brexit; that’s a big priority”.

But even before he’s spoken up in the Commons about the stickiest subject in British politics, his name is already up there “with the greats”, he grins. “Barry Manilow – ‘Copacabana’”.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.