Lorely Burt On Lords Reform, Lib Dems Fighting Tories And Elections Defeats

Posted: Updated: 21/05/2012 13:19

It's fair to say that a lot of people didn't expect Lorely Burt to be in parliament after the last election - the Lib Dem parliamentary chairwoman went into the May 2010 poll with a majority of 279 in her Solihull seat. Against the odds she came back, with an even smaller majority of 175 - and when I meet her at Westminster it's clear she hasn't forgotten about her bruising encounter with the Tories two years ago.

"There’s no love lost in Solihull, I can tell you," she says. "That nice Lord Ashcroft donated more money to fight Solihull than any other seat."

And it sounds as though the local elections earlier this month saw another bruising encounter. Burt said they were "fighting like Billyo in Solhill," and while she insists the relationship between coalition MPs at Westmister is professional, she makes no apology for the way she talks about Tories when it comes to fighting elections - fully expecting things to remain just as bitter when the next general election eventually arrives.

"I think we’ve already had the indication that it’s going to be no holds barred, because when you look at how they behaved in the referendum on AV, and that was quite shocking, in my view, it just showed how vehment and quite aggressive in tooth and claw then can be. So yes, we don’t expect any quarter in the next general election.

"Perhaps we have been too nice. We’ve certainly been naive in the some of the ways that we’ve conducted ourselves, but I think we can probably be forgiven since it’s the first time in 80 years that we’ve been in power," she says.

But I tell her I saw a couple of Lib Dem leaflets in this month's elections which were far from naive - one in the south west which said, ‘Vote Lib Dem to avoid Tory cuts', for example.

“Really?" she says, having not seen that leaflet. "Good on them. I can understand why some of them put that on their leaflets, because we’ve rubbed some of the hard edges off the Conservatives, just as they’ve rubbed the soft edges off us."

Even though the Lib Dems are still performing badly in the polls, sometimes coming in behind UKIP, Burt is highly positive about the Lib Dems' chances at the next election - and why not, since she's personally managed to defy electoral gravity in her own seat? I ask her about Clegg and Cameron's recent "renewal of vows" set-piece in an Essex tractor factory.

"I think they did well to choose the symbolism of it. A little blue and yellow tractor dragging us out of the slow of debt. This sort of rose-garden, love-affair type thing, that makes me queasy."

Should it always have been more tractor factory and less rose garden? "I would’ve felt more comfortable with that, but the relationship has developed. The story that the press wanted to write for the first year, I think, was it was the thin end of the wedge, it’s all going to end in tears - so in our first year I think we had to demonstrate to people that we can do well.

"It is a business-like arrangement, like running a company. You don’t have to like the people that you work with, as long as they are effective at what they do."

Burt is less outspoken in our interview than of late, particularly about Jeremy Hunt, about whom she was recently critical. Does she regret her recent call for him to refer himself to the independent adjudicator of the Ministerial Code, Alex Alan?

"It was just one of those sort of unguarded remarks," she says. "A journalist phoned me up when I was in the supermarket, and I just don’t stop to think before I speak."

So she's rowing back on what she said at the time? "As far as Jeremy Hunt is concerned, he’s going to have his time under oath. I did suggest originally that he might wish to refer himself to the independent advisor on the ministerial code. He hasn’t, which is his prerogative."

She's also surprisingly moderate on Lords reform - when I ask her how passionate she is about replacing the peers with a largely elected chamber. “Well on a scale of one to ten, probably about five.”

Really, only a five? Does she really think the reforms will go through? "I’m a democrat, but if it doesn’t happen, for whatever reason, I’m just going to treat it as pragmatically as I can."

I put it to her that the Tories might be able to get away with saying they've keep their side of the bargain, if they can get the Bill through the Commons but it then falls apart in the Lords. "Well, it becomes a point of pride, then. That would be an invidious position to be in, where you’ve passed some legislation and their Lordships weren’t having it. That’s very provocative."

"It’s such a tough one. We’ll just have to see."

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