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MP Alistair Burt On Parliament's Vote To Take A No-Deal Brexit Off The Table

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we're going to hear next from a member of Parliament in Boris Johnson's own Conservative Party - or at least he was until yesterday. Alistair Burt is one of those 21 Conservative MPs we just heard about who rebelled against the prime minister and who have now - to use the lingo of Parliament - had the whip removed. They have been kicked out of the party.

Alistair Burt is on the line, live from his office near Parliament in London.

Alistair Burt, welcome.

ALISTAIR BURT: Good afternoon.

KELLY: Is there any way to characterize these last 24, 36 hours other than a disaster for the Conservative Party and British politics more broadly?

BURT: I'm not sure disaster would be quite the word, but certainly...

KELLY: What's the word?

BURT: I'm kind of go through Webster's Dictionary to see if I can find one.

KELLY: Fair enough.

BURT: I'd start with extraordinary, as your correspondent very accurately portrayed it. I think he really put it very well. We are faced with a series of challenges which the government has not faced before. We are going through the most difficult constitutional process we have been through in two generations, and we're trying to do it with a government with no majority - and now a minority government.

You're right to characterize the day as another very difficult day for the prime minister. He wasn't going to win any of the votes today, and I think he's going to have to rethink his strategy because trying to bulldoze Parliament into doing what he wants when he has no majority isn't going to work. And I think he's going to have to think through a different strategy.

KELLY: Let me put to you the question that we just put to our London correspondent. Would a general election this fall - if there is a general election this fall - would that solve anything? Does it fix - does it resolve the Brexit issue?

BURT: I think if an election is held after the United Kingdom has left the European Union, the prospects for the government become much better. If he tries to fight an election before Brexit, which is what he was asking for tonight, firstly, he risks a strong challenge from the Brexit party because they will portray the Conservative Party as not delivering. And your correspondent was right. The country is so fractured and divided, the prospect of a hung Parliament would be exactly the same as before.

If he succeeds in leaving the EU - and I would want him to leave the EU with a deal. That's what today's legislation was all about. He would then be able to go to the country and say, I've delivered on leaving the EU. I have this much stronger domestic program than Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn is an unpopular leader in the Labour Party. I think he would do well then but in the meantime, no. And I don't think he would be necessarily comfortable with an election.

KELLY: And - I mean, you've known Boris Johnson for years, worked with him for years. What do you believe is his strategy at this point?

BURT: I'm sorry. The line's gone dead. I'm not quite sure I heard your question. The difficulty is, we're trying to work out what the strategy really is.

KELLY: I'll repeat it for you. I'm just...

BURT: No, no, no.

KELLY: It's puzzling to those of us on this side of the Atlantic trying to figure out quite exactly what Boris Johnson's endgame is. And perhaps the answer is nobody, including Boris Johnson, knows after the events of the last few hours.

BURT: There is certainly a strategy. The worry for a number of my Conservative colleagues is the strategy has been put together by the campaigning team that took the United Kingdom out of the EU - the so-called Vote Leave campaign. They're not necessarily Conservatives. They're currently ruling the roost in Downing Street. And it's possible their understanding of Parliament and parliamentary procedures is rudimentary. The idea of threatening people like me to remove the whip didn't work.

And I think that he needs - badly needs to take more advice. Boris knows parliamentarians well, knows politicians well. He's got to start making some of his own decisions and leave some of his advisers to one side 'cause they may have won him the campaign. They may have got him to be in Downing Street, but now he's got to take charge. And so far, his domestic program is OK, but his strategy to deal with both the EU and Parliament over Brexit isn't working.

KELLY: In the few seconds we've got left, I have to ask...

BURT: Yeah.

KELLY: ...You because I saw you have said you will step down. You won't run again in the next general election, whenever it may...

BURT: Correct.

KELLY: ...Come. Why do you feel strongly enough to step away from your career to defy the prime minister?

BURT: Well, because I would be asking my Conservative association, my local members committee that select me as the candidate, to put that confidence in someone on a major issue like Europe where I can't be sure I really support the government's position, and they can't be sure of me. And I don't want to give them that dilemma.

KELLY: Alistair Burt, MP for North East Bedfordshire, thank you so much for speaking with us tonight.

BURT: You're welcome. Thank you for asking. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.