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Alex Burghart MP talks Pensions, the PM and Party Politics with Roar News

Comment Editor Fintan Hogan sits down with King’s alumni, Member of Parliament and Minister for Pensions Alex Burghart, as part of Roar’s ongoing alumni interview series.

King’s College London (KCL) prides itself on many of its alumni. From Nightingale to Tutu, their faces decorate windows and walls all over King’s campuses. But these are old hands in the alumni game. A new generation have graduated and are the changemakers of today. This short series of interviews aims to provide an insight into former students who have taken the short trip from Strand to SW1.

Every interviewee deserves an individual article, as each has a valuable political insight to share. After the staggered releases, we will compile one further piece which summarises the value that former students have taken from King’s in particular. Each has been kind enough to offer introspection, advice and guidance for our current students. Read carefully – these are powerful, popular and intelligent public figures who have stood in your shoes. We are grateful to each participant for their time.

Background

Following our opening interview with Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney, I was invited to meet Conservative MPs Alex Burghart and Bob Seely face-to-face in Westminster on Tuesday October 18.

These meetings are far from spontaneous, and had been arranged over a month in advance. Indeed, it’s likely that they would not have agreed to such a meeting if they could have anticipated the disarray of the Truss government by mid-October. It’s worth the quick reminder that at this point almost all of the ‘mini-Budget’ had just been scrapped, Kwarteng was freshly deposed and Tory MPs were starting to break rank and call for Truss’ resignation. But, true to their word, I was welcomed into Portcullis House on Tuesday morning, first by MP for Brentwood and Ongar, Alex Burghart.

Pulling up trees

Portcullis House is a large meeting place for parliamentarians, just over the road from the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Clean, white and open-plan, it is an impressive space. Our meeting takes place in a side room with a view of Parliament Square and the clockface of Big Ben. I am, it’s fair to say, impressed.

As we walk through the main lobby, Alex tells me that the soil beds in the middle of the hall have just been dug up to remove some large, centrepiece trees. “Symbolic?”, I ask wryly. He doesn’t comment but chuckles slightly. I was right. Truss is indeed uprooted just two days later.

Alex too has been pulling up trees during his short time in Westminster. Elected in 2017, he was appointed Pensions Minister this October, moving from a role in the Department of Education. At only 45, he has worked in policy positions for over a decade, authored a book on education and was appointed as Director of Strategy by the Children’s Commissioner of England. He also worked as a policy advisor to Theresa May from 2016. She was always “professional and hard-working” and he says that being in her Downing Street was a “privilege”. Overall, Alex is well-known, well-liked and well-respected within the party, particularly on issues of education.

He tells me that he’s “always been interested in education and young people.” Indeed, he was raised by two teachers and this has clearly sparked a life-long interest, even if he now finds himself in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

I ask him what made him switch from policy-making to politics. After working in thinktanks and advisory roles, he tells me you can “either dedicate yourself to policy and getting other people to implement it, or you can spend your time trying to implement good policy. I fancied having a go at the other side of it.”

“Fed up of giving all of your recommendations and seeing them canned?” I ask. Chuckle.

Moving on up?

Alex tells me that the most important thing about his job is seeing to his constituents. “It’s often what may sound like very small cases which make a big difference in people’s lives.” He recalls helping constituents overcome bureaucratic hurdles with some pride and tells me that “helping empower people” is what the job is really about.

But Mr Burghart is a minister as well as an MP, and has responsibilities to country as well as constituency. “Over the past couple of years I’ve had two interesting jobs right at the heart of different aspects of government [in education and pensions].” An academic at heart, Mr Burghart completed his undergraduate and masters at Oxford, before moving to King’s for his PhD. Yet he emphasises the less fortunate in his recollection of his time in education.

“As someone who spent a lot of time at university, having to think about the part of society that doesn’t go to university… and thinking about what chances we’re giving them is really fascinating. [It] opened my eyes to all of the amazing opportunities that exist with things like degree-level apprenticeships and giving people new and different routes into work.” He is proud of his work being a “champion”  of wider access to education in particular.

I ask about Alex’s new role at the DWP, but as he’s “only been in post for about 20 minutes” he invites me back to ask again in a year’s time. However, he does confirm that pension dashboards and auto-enrollment are “absolutely” still priorities for government. He uses conservative language to praise the DWP’s work, calling it a “nudge to savings”, helping people “make your money work more effectively for you” and “enabling people to be better consumers of pensions”.

In my previous interview with Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney, she said that the main issue facing the DWP – and thus Alex Burghart – was if pensions and benefits were going to be raised along with the rate of inflation. Even Conservative MPs like Penny Mordaunt had come out in favour of the uprating, while PM Truss (and Chancellor Hunt) had, at that point, not confirmed that they would be protected.

Asking specifically about his brief on pensions, Alex unfortunately denies Roar News a scoop. “No decision on uprating can be made until the annual inflation figures come out later this month… everyone will have to wait just a few more days.” Indeed the decision did come just one day later, as Truss promised to retain the triple lock on pensions (including a protection on inflation) during PMQs.

“A Future Star”

Young, fresh-faced and highly qualified, Mr Burghart has recently been praised by party grandee Michael Gove as a “future star of the Conservative party” in The Spectator. Currently one rung below Cabinet, I ask about his ambitions for the future. Maybe Education Secretary? As I half-expected, he dismisses any kind of speculation and says that you’re “very lucky to get anything at ministerial level… [There are] lots of interesting things to do in government, and I’m just focusing on what I’m doing at the moment.” But from his background, expertise and persona, I would be surprised if we never see Mr Burghart high up in the Department of Education. Or maybe even higher.

His resignation was tendered alongside that of Kemi Badenoch when he quit the Johnson government, and Mr Gove praises her in his piece too. Alex backed Badenoch in the leadership election over the summer, calling her ‘the future’.

I ask about what she brings to the Conservative party. At the time of this going to press, the process of selection for Truss’ successor has not yet been announced, but Badenoch’s relatively unexpected success in August may encourage another her to make another run now. Alex tells me that they’re “very lucky [to have] a really exciting next generation in the Conservative party… Kemi’s a great friend of mine, I think she’s got enormous talents and appeal and a great way of thinking.”

Post-Truss

Alex made a point to say that, at the time of the interview, himself and Kemi were fully behind PM Truss. 48 hours later, and with no PM Truss to speak of, we will have to see who Mr Burghart endorses in the upcoming leadership race.

The news cycle has rarely moved faster than this last week, but I asked if Truss was right in her statement that their economic policy had gone ‘too far and too fast’. “The Prime Minister has a very difficult job at the moment and I know that she’s interested in doing what’s right for the country… I listened very closely to the Chancellor yesterday and I think that he and the Prime Minister have made the right decision.”

Finally, I ask him if an early general election was on the cards. He tells me that he’d be “very surprised” if there was. Indeed, it makes little sense for the Conservatives to call one, trailing to Labour as they are now by 29 points. But one might come around regardless, if the next Tory Prime Minister can’t command a majority in the Commons either. And stranger things have happened. Several of them this week.

Roar thanks MP Alex Burghart and Office Manager Victoria Clode for their time.

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