Reshuffles are a funny business. At times during the New Labour years it seemed as if the ministerial cards were thrown in the air for the mere amusement of the Prime Minister.
David Cameron has made a point of being more loyal for the sake of consistency, moving Cabinet minsters only when he has no other choice but to do so. In the junior ranks there has been more movement, but until last week there had been a single Middle East minister: Alistair Burt. His sacking has mystified Middle East experts and Westminster-watchers alike.
During such turbulent times in the Middle East, Mr Burt was an inspired choice for the job. He has a passion for the region, established during his long years as a prominent figure in Conservative Friends of Israel. And during his three and a half years as a minister, the MP for North-East Bedfordshire has also forged a reputation for even-handedness across the sectarian divides of the Middle East (and the various UK campaign groups). Chris Doyle of CAABU (Council for Arab-British Understanding) tweeted: “Thank you for your very professional and hardworking approach to M East. Sorry to see you leave”.
It may not have made national news headlines, but there was genuine cross-party shock at his removal. Labour Shadow Minister Chris Bryant described him as “the nicest, warmest and most generally fantabulous MP there is”. He noted that 18 MPs, including Labour’s Glenda Jackson and Tory Rory Stewart, had paid tribute to him during Tuesday’s statement to Parliament by Foreign Secretary William Hague.
There seems to be a consensus that Mr Burt was a real gentleman, and that was certainly my experience in all my dealings with him. Carolyn Quinn from BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster captured his attitude to journalists well when she said: “Thank you for always fielding our numerous interview requests with charm and patience.”
There was genuine cross-party shock at his removal
And how about this from his opposite number on the Labour benches, Ian Lucas: “As Alistair’s Shadow, his conduct in office was a model to which to aspire.” Other Labour MPs Jon Ashworth, Michael Dugher and Chi Onwurah also expressed their surprise at his departure, as did Lib Dem president Tim Farron.
So the question remains: why on earth did Alistair Burt have to go? The “Minster for the Arab Spring” had built up a deep stock of knowledge and trust. His removal seems almost wilfully irresponsible at such a sensitive time for the region. His replacement, Hugh Robertson, the former Minister for Sport, has some gigantic boots to fill.
The word is that Mr Hague fought hard to keep his Middle East minister, but in the end couldn’t save him. There is also talk that someone had to take the fall for the failure of the Prime Minister to carry the vote on intervention in Syria. If Alistair Burt has effectively taken one for the team, then respect for this exceptional politician will only increase.