It's an election Jim, just not as I know it!

Rt Hon Alistair Burt blogs for Newington on the General Election, his first since 1983 not being a candidate. 

The evening news headlines on Sunday 1st September revealed that the Prime Minister had decided at Chequers to make the Withdrawal Bill the following Tuesday a confidence matter. The consequence was that Conservative MPs voting for a motion to secure time to pass a Bill to prevent leaving the EU without a deal on October 31st would effectively be voting to end their membership of the Parliamentary Party (‘losing the whip’).

I was one of those. I contemplated with my wife that evening what we should do. After 95 years of Conservative membership and activity between us, the choice was to turn tail on my belief that leaving the EU with no deal was bad news for my constituents or leave my Commons community after 32 years of service to it, holding some position or other under every Leader from Margaret Thatcher onwards. It wasn’t much of an evening.

But it was no contest. I informed local party members and constituents the next day that I would not be standing at the next election whenever it was to be, and I would continue to vote as I thought best for North East Bedfordshire on EU issues.

Much has happened since that September week. I and the ‘Rebel Alliance’ lost the whip, but the upcoming negotiations with the EU resulted not in a collapse or impasse as we had been warned, but an agreement for the UK and EU. This was no mean feat, turned into a Bill by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to ‘get Brexit done’. I voted for that Bill, but as we all know, the Bill did not complete its passage and the election that is upon us was called.

For me, it is an election like no other - it is the first time since 1983 I am no longer a candidate. The whip was returned to me, without my appealing for its return, but I make no secret or excuse for my pride in being a Conservative MP for 36 years and leaving as one.

However, the time was right for me to go. I accepted the result of the Referendum and voted for its delivery. But a lifetime of commitment, from the origins of a Europe forged from the tragedy of the twentieth century, of support for the UK in the EU, of many friends in proper sister parties such as the CDU, and colleagues I have worked in partnership with during my years in the FCO and DFID, cannot for me be translated into a 180 degree turn to proclaim something which may now be best for the UK, but for which I have no heart. That my party now believes in leaving the EU, from the majority of its membership, to the majority of its MPs is not an illegitimate political position, and I wish my colleagues and the country every success as they embark on this endeavour, but I simply cannot join them, and it seems more honourable therefore not to contest the election.

I think the election gamble of Boris Johnson will be successful. He has cornered the ‘Leave’ market, and faced off Nigel Farage, which is a pretty good political achievement. He faces an Opposition with a narrowing appeal through its manifesto and leader, and I have no doubt that the country should return a Conservative Government. Then we will see. If the Conservative Party maintains a ‘one nation’ tradition as the PM appears determined to do, if Brexit does not come with a rag tag of hard right social and economic propositions, if we do not lurch closer to a US administration of questionable judgement, then I wish my colleagues well, and will want them and the country to be a success.

So this time, the exit poll on December 12th may have less immediate personal resonance, but like every other citizen, I will know that what it heralds really does matter to us all.