David Burrowes does not see himself as a rebel. The wall of his Commons office is adorned with a picture of William Wilberforce, and in this interview he expounds a tradition of Christian conservatism in which he feels completely at home.
But this week he warned against “catastrophic” cuts to Housing Benefit for under 22s, yesterday morning he spoke up on ConservativeHome for child refugees, and in this conversation he makes clear his unwavering determination to ensure that the Government protects the most vulnerable: “Unless there’s some change to the [Housing Benefit] plans it may force YMCA and other hostel accommodation for young people to close.”
Burrowes recounts how he “learned a little of the early stages of being awkward, and challenging the status quo and the Establishment” while at Exeter University with Robert Halfon, Tim Montgomerie and Sajid Javid, where they renamed part of the Student Union building “Norman Tebbit Corridor”.
He also recalls the advice given to him by Margaret Thatcher after he regained Enfield Southgate for the Conservatives at the 2005 general election; and acknowledges the invaluable role played on the doorstep by the Burrowes family dog, Cholmeley, with whom he is pictured here.
Compared to most MPs, and most Englishmen, Burrowes talks with a joyful lack of embarrassment about his Christian faith. He also seeks to explain how this is still a Christian country, and why being a Conservative is by no means the same as being a Christian Democrat.
A portrait emerges from this interview of a politician who (like others in all parties) is completely unlike the careerist caricature which commands such widespread acceptance.
ConHome: “Who are your heroes?”
Burrowes: “Let’s start with Wilberforce. Perhaps not a surprising hero of mine, as a Christian and a Conservative. But he’s someone who as a student, in the days with Tim, Robert, Sajid, particularly myself and Tim, when we founded the Conservative Christian Fellowship…”
ConHome: “There wasn’t a Conservative Christian Fellowship at Exeter?”
Burrowes: “No, in those days there was a gathering at the party conference. We particularly wanted to counter the narrative at the time that you can’t be a Conservative and a Christian. We thought that’s thoroughly wrong.”
ConHome: “This was in 1989 [he was born in 1969].”
Burrowes: “The great thing about William Wilberforce is not only was he an extraordinary political campaigner, he was tactical as well.
“But there were other heroes as well. When I met Margaret Thatcher after being elected, I told her we shared two very important characteristics. She looked at me with her steely-eyed gaze that made colleagues quiver, and she said, ‘Yes?’
“And I said well firstly, we both share the affliction of Dupuytren’s contracture of the finger, so we shared our war wounds, and she showed a very motherly concern about our shared affliction.
“And then the mood changed a little bit when I said we also share non-identical twins. So I asked her, do you have any advice? This was in 2005, off the glow of having been elected for Enfield Southgate, which we’d lost in 1997, most famously [the defeat of Michael Portillo].
“And she looked at me and said: ‘David! Don’t have them!’ Which was obviously a little bit too late.”
ConHome: “She was such a performer. Charles Moore brings that out very well in his life of her.”
Burrowes: “She then said ‘Enfield Southgate’ – obviously she knows Enfield Southgate, she was not far away in Finchley, she would now be turning in her grave at the boundary changes, Finchley and Golders Green getting abolished like Enfield Southgate – we have a great love for our constituencies – as a real trouper she just said, ‘Keep an eye on your patch.’”
ConHome: “What was your majority in 2015?”
Burrowes: “Four and a half thousand. We were holding the line. But we lost Enfield North [Nick de Bois’s seat]. So in the north of London, we lost the election.
“And I’m acutely aware that despite our fine win, we lost votes in my patch, and we were just holding the line, and recognising that there are parts of Enfield we do not reach with the Conservative message that we need to, if we’re going to win elections and also win the hearts and minds of our nation.”
ConHome: “What does that imply?”
Burrowes: “It means recognising there are issues of social justice that we need to keep very much at the heart of our agenda. There’s individuals that have gone through hard times and don’t necessarily instinctively see us on their side.
“And obviously in a diverse community such as Enfield, a large BME community, also despite our increasingly good endeavours of being involved in these communities, and more representative of these communities, they don’t necessarily wake up on election day and instinctively identify themselves with the Conservatives.
“We need to break through that, and one of the good ways to do that it to show that we care about the vulnerable, and fighting poverty. And doing things which people like William Wilberforce and all the way through to Margaret Thatcher cared about, which was very much about being on the side of those people who want to do the right thing.”
ConHome: “You’re an Anglican?”
Burrowes: “I grew up in an Anglican Church. I wouldn’t define myself as an Anglican. I’m a Christian, a committed Christian. If you wanted to label me, an evangelical Christian.
“That can take me into an Anglican church if an Anglican church is preaching the Bible well. It takes me wherever the Bible is taught well and faithfully.
“Firstly I grew up in Christ Church, Cockfosters, which is well known for being the church at the end of the [Piccadilly] line, when you’ve fallen asleep after a late night in the West End – if you’re trying to search around for a taxi, you may end up at the church.
“It was where they held the memorial service for Elvis Presley and have inscribed on the pews ‘Elvis Lives’. My father sang alongside Cliff Richard in the choir there.
“It’s lesser known for the fact I grew up there and came to faith through that church and the youth work there. I spent time as a youth leader, did a lot of youth work, could perhaps have ended up as a youth worker if I didn’t become a criminal defence lawyer and then a politician.
“So this was where I grew up and became a local councillor there as well.”
ConHome: “You did a long stint as a local councillor.”
Burrowes: “Yes, about eleven years or so.”
ConHome: “What age were you when you became a local councillor?”
Burrowes: “It would have been 22.”
ConHome: “So fresh out of Exeter.”
Burrowes: “Yes, I had a friendly agent who said, ‘You need to do this.’”
ConHome: “Pretty time-consuming.”
Burrowes: “Yes, it was. And juggling that then with all-hours work as a duty solicitor. So you’re defending your local villains at night, and defending your local constituents by day.
“Sometimes those merged, actually, when you met them in the High Street, you weren’t quite sure if they were villains, constituents or indeed from the congregation, or maybe a whole combination.”
ConHome: “And when you were 26 you got married. How old are the children?”
Burrowes: “There are six children. The twins are 19, then you’ve got a 17-year-old, then 16, then 12 and nine.
“And then a very important dog. I’ve realised over the years that the children – perhaps actually Margaret Thatcher should have told me this earlier on – are not necessarily the best electoral asset on the doorstep, but the dog is.
“Much to my children’s chagrin, they’ve now been displaced on the literature by Cholmeley the dog.”
ConHome: “As in Lord Cholmondeley?”
Burrowes: “No, Sir Roger Cholmeley, the founder of the school, Highgate, that I went to, and also in fact an MP for Middlesex.”
ConHome: “What sort of dog is Cholmeley?”
Burrowes: “A Labrador.”
Burrowes: “A yellow one.”
ConHome: “And how old is Cholmeley?”
Burrowes: “Cholmeley is seven. He’s featured in a number of Westminster Dog of the Year competitions. He’s worked hard at that.”
ConHome: “Has he ever won?”
Burrowes: “He hasn’t won, actually.”
ConHome: “That’s surprising.”
Burrowes: “He’s not quite your…”
ConHome: “He’s not sweet enough?”
Burrowes: “He’s not sweet enough. He doesn’t do that Alan Duncan thing of being a little pooch that manages to parade themselves about and get voted for. He’s solid, dependable, he’s out there, he’s everyone’s favourite dog but not always quite the winner in these dog shows.
“Unfortunately I don’t quite take it seriously enough either. I did a manifesto on the basis of supporting hard-working dogs. If he was Prime Minister, what would Cholmeley do? He would invest in lamp-posts.”
ConHome: “Were there any other Conservatives at Highgate? I think of it as a rather Socialist place. People like Charles Clarke and Tony Crosland.”
Burrowes: “Ah yes, Charles Clarke. When I was first elected, Charles Clarke didn’t want to mention too much his Highgate background, when he was Secretary of State for Education with all his aides, in the Commons cafeteria.
“I went bounding over to Charles: ‘Hello, old boy! How are you doing, Charles? When were you at Highgate?’
“But more recently we’ve got a bit of a Conservative resurgence. You’ve got Robert Halfon and myself, great mates. In fact Robert is to blame for my political activity. His enthusiasm rubbed off on me.
“He was crazily ambitious and keen on the Conservatives and politics. I was more interested in sport.
“Some of it grew out of my Christian faith and seeing it as a regular response to be involved in public life and society. With Robert we went along to his Shabbat Friday night meals and talked about faith and community and those values we shared, the Judaeo-Christian values of this country that we cared passionately about, plus support for Israel as well as seeing the outworking of that.
“And then we ended up in Exeter University together. Me studying Law, Robert studying Politics, Tim Economics and Sajid Economics.
“In reaction to what we saw there we learned a little of the early stages of being awkward, and challenging the status quo and the Establishment, which was in the form of the NUS [National Union of Students], which interestingly was led nationally by Stephen Twigg.
“The Student Union had these rooms, the Music and Drama Room, the Daniel Ortega Room, and the Top Corridor. We decided to change the names.
“We’re going to change the Top Corridor to the Norman Tebbit Corridor, we’re going to change the Music and Drama Room to the Maggie and Denis Room, and the pièce de résistance, the thing that really crunched it, we’re going to change the Daniel Ortega room – obviously as we know, in ideological politics they take themselves much too seriously, and we must always have a sense of humour, and hold ourselves lightly – to the Jason and Kylie room, so we brought in Neighbours, which students cared about.
“So we had a block motion to change all these names, we flooded out the Students’ Union, and they all came out for Jason and Kylie, so we got it through. It was a great success.”
ConHome: “So have you remained to this day of a rebellious disposition?”
Burrowes: “There’s certainly that campaigning zeal in me. It’s not habitually rebellious. If you looked at my voting record, you’d probably only find one or two times that I’ve rebelled.
“But when I rebel I rebel seriously. So I led the rebellion against the previous government on Sunday trading, which was successful. But I’m signed up to our manifesto and I recognise it’s a team sport, and I’m a team player. I love team sports particularly, football, cricket, I play both of them when I can.”
ConHome: “Now the two things you’re particularly rebelling against at the moment…”
Burrowes: “The benefits issue, I was involved in the last Budget, in the need for tax credits to be meaningful and to ensure that people do actually get into work and it’s tapered. So the Chancellor accepted that.
“The other benefits issue more recently is the PIP [Personal Independence Payments]. I’m not rebelling against the Government on that issue.
“We’ve got to be really careful. I’m signed up to a manifesto commitment that housing benefit is reduced from those who can either earn or learn, but we have to realise that not everybody will fit into that category or box, and there’ll be those particularly with mental health issues, or maybe drug and alcohol background, who for whatever reason can’t go home and are needing perhaps some hostel accommodation with the YMCA.
“And I’ve got in my local patch leading members of the YMCA who’ve told me very directly that unless there’s some change to the plans it may force YMCA and other hostel accommodation for young people to close because they can’t have the funds to support vulnerable young people.
“So I’m challenging the Government to link up their review of supported housing with this change.”
ConHome: “Has Damian Green been receptive?”
Burrowes: “It’s early days on that.”
ConHome: “The Prime Minister’s general position seems to be very similar to yours, and from an explicitly Christian position.”
Burrowes: “Yes, I don’t see myself as going against the grain, but there may be different ways. The Prime Minister I know from time to time as Home Secretary disagreed with me about issues around the refugees issue [about which Burrowes and Heidi Allen wrote yesterday on ConHome]. But nevertheless the instincts are the same.”
ConHome: “Although one of her instincts seems to be a determination to show she won’t be pushed around.”
Burrowes: “Very much so. By anyone. She wants to look at things very carefully. She won’t just simply react to get a headline. It’s a very grown-up Government.
“One part of it, amidst the huge priority round our Brexit negotiations, will be delivering on social justice. I’m expecting there’ll be a paper shortly that will set her whole agenda out.”
ConHome: “Is this still a Christian country, do you think?”
Burrowes: “It is a Christian country in terms of its heritage, and there are distinctly Christian values. You’ve only got to walk around London to see the enduring impact in our schools, in our social work, our youth work.
“If you took the Christian out of youth work that would be almost half of all youth work across the country that would go. So it’s living and breathing in very practical ways throughout our country delivering for the common good. So yes in that sense.
“But my hesitancy and caution is that increasingly we are a secular country where Christianity has to take its place alongside those of no faith and other faiths.
“There’s still a strong appetite for faith, generally. I think there’s a growth in faith and a reduction in religion in our country.
“I align myself with having a strong faith, very much a relationship with Jesus Christ, that’s what defines me, my identity. He’s my biggest hero of all. More so than any particular churchmanship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be a great hero of mine as well.”
ConHome: “And how does this work in politics, and in the Conservative Party? We’re not Christian Democrats…”
Burrowes: “No, no, no!”
ConHome: “Well what are we?”
Burrowes: “Well the way the Conservative Christian Fellowship defines itself is not as some political brand, some political ideology, Christian socialism or Christian democracy.
“We are Christians, it’s not an exclusively Christian political blueprint, you’re defined by your relationship with Jesus Christ and how you relate to others. So I think Conservatives get that well, because we are not ideologues at heart.
“We are pragmatic and we do genuinely have a broad church. So it does actually encompass Christians and other faiths and none. Which actually is very respectful of faith, and respectful of difference, in a way that I think is reflective of our country.
“If I didn’t have him [he points at the portrait of Wilberforce], it would be G.K.Chesterton. We all need to be angels. We need to fly, and the only reason angels can fly is they hold themselves lightly [as Chesterton said].
“And that’s it. Not taking ourselves too seriously, we’ve got to be ready to laugh at ourselves, and be concerned not so much about our own career path, our own power, our own money, our own interests, but actually for others, and being servants of others we can hold ourselves lightly, and we can fly.”