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U.K. Conservative Lawmakers, Who Sacrificed Careers Over Brexit, Share Thoughts


For a politician, going against the leader of one's own party can have grave political consequences. Here in the United States, some Republican lawmakers privately talk of opposing President Trump but say they don't because they fear it could cost them their seats. Across the Atlantic, legislators in Britain's Conservative Party have been confronting similar fears. They opposed another populist politician, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and were expelled from their party.

NPR's Frank Langfitt spoke with two party rebels about their decisions and what they've learned.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The Conservative Party has just held its annual convention here in this cavernous former rail station in Manchester. It's about a two-hour train ride north of London. But David Gauke, who served as the country's justice minister, wasn't invited. The party kicked him out last month. And that was after he and 20 other lawmakers voted to block Johnson from crashing the U.K. out of the European Union without a Brexit withdrawal agreement. At an event recently, just outside the convention security perimeter, Gauke said he fought a no-deal Brexit in part because he knows that British businesses are going to be hurt by this.

DAVID GAUKE: You cannot prepare your way out of massive new tariffs if you are exporting agricultural produce. You cannot prepare your way out, if you are a business, if you depend upon just-in-time supply chains.

LANGFITT: Speaking to a packed room of disaffected party members, Gauke also deplored the Conservative's lurch to the right and Boris Johnson's increasingly incendiary language, in which he accuses opponents of surrendering to Europe and betraying the Brexit vote.

GAUKE: The Conservative Party becomes a much more aggressive, much more confrontational, much more divisive party. We are no longer the party of Churchill. We are more the party of Trump.

LANGFITT: Gauke is referring to strident Brexiteer rhetoric, which has instilled fear in opposition lawmakers. Afterwards, Gauke told me it was hard to sacrifice a career after nearly three decades in the Conservative Party, but he was at peace with his decision.

GAUKE: My fear was that I was going to be complicit in allowing something that would have been disastrous for the country. And I think I would have struggled in terms of, you know, reconciling my own sort of narrative, if you like. It's why I went into politics, which I thought was about trying to do good for the country.

LANGFITT: Alistair Burt is another Conservative lawmaker who defied Johnson and paid the price.

ALISTAIR BURT: It fell very hard. My wife and I have, between us, contributed 95 years to Conservative Party activism. I'm a member of Parliament for 32 years. Our life has been bound up in this.

LANGFITT: I asked Burt if he had thoughts about legislators on Capitol Hill facing a similar dilemma.

BURT: You've got to have something you're prepared to lose your seat for that matters to you because if you don't have that, you don't have anything you're really prepared to fight for. And I would say that to any elected official. You've got to know that there's something that you're prepared not to do. It took me 36 years, but I found it.

LANGFITT: Of course, the stakes are higher here in the United Kingdom than they are in America. After all, at some point, President Trump will leave office. But Brexit could be forever, which is one reason why Burt opposed Boris Johnson. Burt won't seek reelection, and he's OK with that.

BURT: The burden of office is a phrase used because it is a burden. It's not an easy life. It's not easy choices. I don't regret my decision for a moment. And I'm looking forward to a new life where people will know what I've done.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Manchester.


Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.