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Where Are They Now? Former Lib Dem MP Paul Burstow

Where Are They Now? Former Lib Dem MP Paul Burstow

Paul Burstow MP speaks during the health debate at the Liberal Democrats annual conference in Bournemouth, 2004 | Alamy

4 min read

Paul Burstow, Liberal Democrat MP for Sutton and Cheam (1997 - 2015)

As Liberal Democrat chief whip for the previous four years, Paul Burstow says he went into the 2010 Coalition negotiations with his eyes wide open. 

“It was frenetic. It was heady. The mood at that point was one of population wanting to see a change, but in a less certain way than they were in 1997 as to what that change would be,” he says. 

The party had been scenario planning at his behest for years. “It was always going to be a very difficult decision: do you take the plunge and go into government with all the knowledge of what happens to third parties in coalitions? We tested that notion to destruction and damaged the party’s ability to be an electoral force for probably 10 years as a consequence. But we went into it knowing that there were significant risks, but actually believing very strongly that it was the right thing to do.”

There was a sense of damned if they did and damned if they didn’t: any ensuing political instability would have been laid at their door had they refused, says Burstow. But he does regret not having a “crystal ball” to help the party navigate some of the ensuing political difficulties. 

The shock in Paul Burstow’s Sutton and Cheam constituency when he lost the seat he had held for 18 years in 2015 was palpable.

Like any candidate you’re abundantly flowing with optimism you’ll be re-elected – candidate-itis is what it’s called

Burstow says he was confident he would win until he watched the election coverage that evening. “I replayed some of the doorstep conversations I’d been having in the preceding weeks, and like any candidate you’re abundantly flowing with optimism you’ll be re-elected– candidate-itis is what it’s called. But actually when you then started to replay the conversations, there was equivocation – ‘we’ve got to keep things as they are and the way we’ll do that is by voting Conservative’. 

“The signs were there if I’d chosen to read them,” he says. “It was my youngest daughter’s birthday on the Friday so my most abiding memory is going home after the count, sad, and telling my daughter who’d assumed I’d won again, and she burst into tears. Even now, that makes me most emotional.”

In his first 13 years in Parliament, Burstow made a reputation for himself working on issues around disability and care: he then served as care minister for the first two years of the Coalition, developing the government’s mental health strategy, drafting the care provisions of the Care Act, and commissioning Sir Andrew Dilnot’s still-discussed review of care costs. 

While he would still like to see Dilnot’s original proposal’s enacted, he is very proud that the Care Act he drafted is still the foundation of the government’s plans for care. 

He now works across a variety of care leadership roles, chairing the Social Care Institute for Excellence, and an integrated care system in Hertfordshire and West Essex. He has no desire to stand again for Parliament.

Burstow says the things he found the most rewarding as an MP were the “the small, small differences that you could make to individual constituents.” 

Another moment that sticks in the mind is when, as minister, he had to reply to a backbench debate on mental health.  

“I think many who had turned up had expected to make constituency and policy points, but the debate took an interesting turn when Sir Charles Walker MP got up to speak. He talked about his own lived experience in a direct and honest way which prompted several other MPs to talk about their experiences of depression and mental illness. This included Kevan Jones who made a very personal speech. It was a humbling moment and was one of those moments when Parliament is at its best.”

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