Alistair Burt: “I hope the nice comments reflect that I’ve pitched it right”
To demonstrate his opposition to a no deal Brexit, Alistair Burt felt he had to leave a job he loved wholeheartedly. Well liked across the House, the former minister has acquired few if any detractors during his more than 30 years in politics. Though the latest chapter of his career has come to a close, he feels he still has more to offer. He speaks to Sebastian Whale
As Biggleswade Town FC secured a 3-1 home win against Lowestoft, Alistair Burt was in the stands mulling his next move. The Oliver Letwin amendment was returning to the Commons for a third time, seeking to give MPs control of the Brexit process. The frontbencher had held out on the first two occasions, confident the Government was heading in a direction that would prevent no deal. He was no longer certain that calculation was correct.
On Sunday, he got a call to go to Chequers. The motley crew that descended on the Prime Minister’s country residence that afternoon enjoyed cordial discussions. “It was a good exchange of opinions,” Burt recalls.
It was very late on Monday evening that he made up his mind. Knowing some of his colleagues were advocating a no deal scenario, he felt compelled to act. “It’s necessary to demonstrate that some of us feel so strongly about this that we would put as much on the line as they’ve been prepared to put on the line in order to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he explains.
Burt resigned as Foreign Office and DfID minister, along with Steve Brine and Richard Harrington, who also quit the Government. The amendment passed with a majority of 27.
His resignation prompted an outpouring of praise from across the political divide. Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said Labour would miss “both the substance and the tone the minister has brought to the debate”. Also speaking in the Commons, Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, said the Government could “ill-afford to lose such a capable minister at a time like this”.
In truth, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has a bad word to say about Burt. During an hour in his company, it quickly becomes clear why.
With a successor unlikely to be appointed any time soon, Burt has kept hold of his ministerial office in parliament, which has exposed floorboards and matching desks following a leak last year. In one corner, a collection of pictures are still covered in bubble wrap to protect from water.
Dotted around are various nods to his passion for sport (Burt has ten London marathons to his name and chairs a local athletics club). On a meeting table is a copy of “his bible”, The Non-League paper. Burt, a keen striker, has seven non-league football teams in his constituency. Somewhere in the melee is a remote-controlled helicopter from one of his grandchildren. Burt stresses that he has never used it near Gatwick airport, though he jokes (at least I think he was joking) that he occasionally flies it by Chris Grayling’s office.
Born in Bury on 25 May 1955, Burt’s father was a doctor and his mother a teacher. He was appointed head boy of Bury Grammar School and studied law at St John’s College, Oxford. In 1976, he was elected president of the Oxford Law Society. Despite joining the Young Conservatives at 15, he passed up the opportunity to get involved with university politics, finding it very different to the “very raw and very real” politics of his hometown. After graduating, he worked as a solicitor and was elected to Haringey council in 1982, joining one Jeremy Corbyn.
In 1983, he was elected MP for Bury North. Burt steadily climbed the ladder during his first 14 years in parliament (he lost his seat in 1997). He worked as PPS to Kenneth Baker and was promoted to the frontbench under John Major in 1992 in the department of social security. A veteran of the Maastricht debates, Burt says with confidence the current Tory divides are “worse” than those seen more than 25 years ago.
Today, a “quite harsh” atmosphere has descended on the party, he concedes. People on Burt’s side of the argument have found it “teeth-gritting” to vote for Theresa May’s deal and see those who campaigned for Brexit oppose it, due to their “stubborn point of principles”.
“I don’t think it’s breaking point. I don’t think it’s something the Conservative party cannot overcome. But we’ve always got to remember that whatever our membership, there are many, many more people who vote Conservative who aren’t members of the Conservative party and they expect us to govern in the national interest, not in a narrow interest,” he argues.
The partisanship of today’s politics is anathema to Burt’s own cordial approach, as demonstrated by the praise he received upon resigning. “I’ve picked up on some of the comments made. I’ve really appreciated them,” he says.
“By and large, I’m not a confrontational party-political individual. One of the things I learned very early coming in is that you have to be authentically what you are. I was never a dial-a-quote. When you see headlines saying, ‘MPs’ fury at’, I’m unlikely to be included in the section they then have with the MPs who have been furious at something.
“I’ve always tried to be straightforward with what I am; I’m not the most combative animal. I would be a very poor chairman of the Conservative party, leading my troops into battle, finding something to belittle in everything that comes forward from the opposition, which is part of the job and what you have to do. I would have found that uncomfortable. You do what suits your character.”
Of concern is the trend towards denigrating your opponents’ arguments. “In a world where we’re all becoming more polarised, where we’re noticing that it’s no longer a question of disagreeing with your opponent but actually trying to conduct an argument on the basis there is no merit whatsoever in your opponent’s views. This is wrong,” he says.
“We’ve got to recognise there will be views coming in that we don’t like that are valid and we’ve got to compromise occasionally. Purity of your politics carries risks.”
Has he been concerned by the influence of the hardliners in his party? “Not as Members of Parliament. Members of Parliament have strong views and I’m not concerned about their influence,” he replies. “I am concerned about the influence of certain protest groups that have welded themselves to the Conservative party, certain think tanks, the more extreme of those and the influence they seek to gain. Yeah, that’s a worry. The party has got to be very careful and guard against all this.”
What about reports of Islamophobia in Conservative ranks. Has that been a cause for concern? “Have I been disturbed? Yes. Clearly, there is a recognition that of the Muslim community in the United Kingdom, many more support other parties other than the Conservative party. As someone who wants to see the Conservative party represent everyone in the UK, that is a matter of concern,” he says.
“We have to be very alert to any risks of it. In all honesty, I suppose I’m not certain of how big an issue it is. I have seen very little evidence of it, but I’m perfectly well aware that others have. We should take it as seriously as anyone else takes similar pressures in their own parties. We would be wrong not to do so.”
Burt moved to Bedfordshire after taking up a job at a headhunting company following the 1997 election. He served as PPS to two Tory leaders, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, upon his return to Westminster.
He joined the frontbench under David Cameron in opposition and was promoted to Foreign Office minister in 2010, where he focussed on policy relating to Syria and the Middle East. He was sacked shortly after the government lost the vote to take military action in Syria in 2013, though it is unknown whether there was any correlation.
Burt still regrets parliament’s decision not to act after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. “We should, at that stage, have made very clear that the redline had been crossed. It might have checked a lot of things, it might have checked Russian influence to a degree, it might have moved to a different solution in Syria,” he says.
It is of no surprise that Burt finds the positives in his ousting from government. When David Cameron told him the news, Burt thanked him for changing his life by giving him the job in the first place. “My whole future in politics will be different because you made me minister for the Middle East in 2010,” he told him. “That, of course, was absolutely true.”
To make life easier, Burt did tell a local radio journalist that he had stood down rather than be sacked. When asked what influenced his decision, he responded: “Well, it was David Cameron saying I want you to stand down.”
Cameron brought Burt back into government as a health minister after the 2015 election. “I’ve been well treated by leaders of the Conservative party,” Burt says. Is he irked by those in politics who are more careerist than himself? “No, we’re all different. That’s the nice thing about parliament. When people say nice things about me, I say if there were 650 Members of Parliament like me it would be a very dull place.”
Does he think he could be a Cabinet minister? “Oh, yes. Absolutely. I’ve seen enough of the Cabinet operating to feel yes, I could do a Cabinet job and feel I would do it well. I would do it in the same sort of style, I hope, that I’ve done the other jobs. I’m comfortable leading and I’m comfortable being a support to more senior colleagues,” he responds.
Is he still willing to serve? “Yes, of course. You’ve always got to be unless you’ve made a very clear decision that you’re ready to retire and retire as a minister. Those are difficult calculations involving family and everything.”
When the first phase of negotiations has been completed, Burt believes new talent should be blooded, though he leaves the PM’s future in her hands. “It would seem to me it’s a good time for a refresh of the government right the way through.”
On his own potential return to this new vamped top team, he adds: “That might not include 64-year-olds who’ve had a really good decent run at being ministers.”
Without a team of civil servants at hand, Burt is having some teething issues adjusting to life on the backbenches. Amid myriad of media requests, he departs briefly for a coffee with Sarah Sands, the editor of the Today programme, for a chat about the show’s coverage of foreign affairs.
As he returns, I’m keen to find out what he wants to happen next. Though he defends Theresa May’s decision to target Tory and DUP votes, Burt says she has not got the “reciprocal response” he feels she deserves. “Accordingly, we’ve now got to think of something different, so we’ll try the cross-party approach,” he adds.
But, after her much criticised speech from Downing Street, in which she pitted MPs against the public, I suggest there is no goodwill left for her to do so. “She finds the current circumstances very difficult. It’s hard to see at the moment what might restore that. It just shows how unbelievably polarising and difficult this all has become… it’s blindingly obvious that she is in a bit of a difficult position,” Burt concedes.
Burt was against a Brexiteer taking on the reins of the party in 2016. “Amid all the uncertainty of life, one thing we can be clear of, it will never ever be their fault. It doesn’t matter what happens or goes wrong. It will never be the fault of the advocates.”
However, he would not be against a “competent individual” who supported leaving the EU from taking the Tories forward. Would he be concerned if Boris Johnson or Michael Gove took on the leadership? “I can’t see a candidate that would have me walk away from the Conservative party after a lifetime of engagement and involvement in it,” he says.
While against a second referendum, Burt is “relaxed” about what Britain’s future relationship with the EU will look like. Given, he argues, that everything is economically “sub-optimal” from the status quo, he will support an arrangement that is “reasonably close”. He concedes that the Prime Minister’s speech at Lancaster House set the parameters of Brexit. But he adds: “There is a point at which you say this hasn’t worked.”
From his experience speaking to overseas counterparts, does he think the Brexit debate has impacted the UK’s standing abroad? “Yes, it has. People were surprised by the result in the first place. They’re surprised at the fact we haven’t been able to resolve it,” he replies. “The exposure of our processes has made some people think very carefully about where British politics is going. They’re concerned about stability. They want to see this resolved.”
But commentators abroad have been “impressed” by the fact Britain has conducted the debate “without there being violence in the streets”, Burt claims. “So, has it affected our standing abroad? Yes, it has. They want to be sure of what the answers are in terms of making their future decisions. But they’re open to it, they certainly haven’t all been saying, we think you’re totally wrong and you should get back in the EU.”
For his part, Burt will continue to vote for the PM’s Brexit deal at any future opportunity. His loyalty to his party intact, he stands ready to serve should anyone come asking. For now, he has a number of pictures to hang on his wall, and a mountain of correspondence to catch up with. With a smile, he concludes: “I hope the nice comments reflect that I’ve pitched it right.”