Conor Burns: the Eurosceptic stalwart who befriended Thatcher | Politics

A self-described “Catholic unionist” from a Belfast family who took pleasure in singing Irish nationalist ballads, the background of Conor Burns might seem to some at odds with his long-term profile as one of the younger Eurosceptic stalwarts of the Conservative party.

Yet the Tory MP, who has resigned as a trade minister, proudly insisted in the past that neither his religion, birthplace nor the fact that he is gay had inhibited his rise through Tory ranks.

Another feature of that rise was a friendship with the late Margaret Thatcher, whom he reportedly met in 1997 after driving her husband, Denis, back from a golf outing.

“DT insisted that I come in ‘and meet the boss’,” Burns later recalled.

The former prime minister would go on to support a number of attempts by Burns to enter parliament, including when she defied doctor’s orders to make a rare public address to launch the activist’s ill-fated attempt to become the Tory MP for Eastleigh in 2001.

A former chairman of Southampton University Conservative Association, Burns was backed by Norman Tebbit to be the party’s student director and also worked for another noted Eurosceptic, Bill Cash.

Other roles came at DeHavilland, the political and public affairs company, in finance with Zurich Advice Network and as a vice-president of the Young Britons’ Foundation, an organisation, since closed, which was dubbed “the Conservative madrasa” because of its radical views.

His Westminster breakthrough came in 2010 when he was elected as MP for Bournemouth West, and he went on to serve as parliamentary private secretary to five different ministers, including under Johnson when he was foreign secretary.

During that time, Burns claimed that his Twitter account was hacked after tweets were sent to the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, demanding details of the UK’s payment obligations to Brussels.

Burns followed Johnson out the door when the latter resigned from his ministerial post in 2018 amid opposition to the Brexit plans of the then prime minister, Theresa May.

Burns’s loyalty was rewarded when Johnson became prime minister, and he was appointed minister of state for trade policy in July 2019. The role gave him responsibilities for policy on areas including trade agreements, barriers to markets and international education exports.

Previous roles have also included a stint as chairman of the all-party group on Bahrain, during which time he defended the kingdom’s record on human rights and urged Britain not to turn its back on it.

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