Burnley’s first Conservative MP in 109 years wants to continue making history
For Burney MP Antony Higginbotham, his 30th birthday is certainly a day he will never forget.
On Monday, December 16th, the Haslingden-born Conservative MP celebrated hitting the big 3-0 by being sworn into parliament.
“Yes, my birthday was on the first day of Parliament.
“There were drinks with the 1922 Committee, so I celebrated my 30th with Boris – well, he was there; I didn’t tell him it was my birthday because I thought that was a bit weird.”
Four days earlier, and still in his 20s, Antony was pacing up and down the St Peter’s Centre surrounded by a team which included his mum and step-dad, nervously awaiting the outcome of a life-defining election count.
Apprehension made way for jubilation as the returning officer declared him the victor with a 1,352-vote defeat over Labour’s Julie Cooper.
The news sent shock waves through the town. Not only had Antony become the first Conservative MP for Burnley in 109 years; he also became the town’s youngest ever parliamentary representative.
“It’s finally sunk in,” he tells the Express. “I’ve done that journey now; Sunday night, Monday morning down to Westminster and Thursday evening back up, so I’ve got into a routine. It’s helped make things a bit more real.
“And the journey has been ok so far. Don’t get me wrong, the trains need improving. But it’s fine. It’s no different to most people’s commute.”
Ten years ago, you would have thought there was more chance of the Clarets getting into Europe than the town electing a Conservative MP.
However, Burnley is beginning to expect the unexpected these days.
“I did think that there was a genuine chance,” says Antony. “On the day I was selected as a candidate in Burnley, if you looked on the electoral calculus, it had Burnley as a Conservative gain. That changed throughout the campaign, but as we were knocking on doors it became more apparent that we had a chance.
“Standing in the town centre, that’s what did it for me. Because if you stand in a town centre, you are going to get a full range of views and it was around 80% positive.
“[There were] more undecided people than I have ever seen. I campaigned in the 2010, 2015, 2017 elections and I have never seen as many undecided voters. It meant there were more people willing to make that leap and maybe see what happens.
“I got my briefing through from the House of Commons library, which they send you while you are writing your maiden speech, and they include a list of the last maiden speeches.
“They only went back to 1918 and so I had to go back and say can you go back to 1910 please.”
Antony studied politics at the University of Hull. A stint in the NHS followed, and than a foray into law. But by his mid-20s he was craving a return to the political arena.
“I’ve always had the appetite [for politics]. When I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer, everything was about how I get back into politics. I joined the local organisation – I had done this when I was at uni. In fact my first campaign was actually when I was 17 and still living in Haslingden. I went into Jake Berry’s office and said, ‘How can I help?’.
“When I went to Hull I started with the Young Conservatives, or Conservative Future as it was then, and helped out.”
During his time there he got to know Andrew Percy, the MP for Brigg and Goole who now has one of the highest vote shares in the country after winning a marginal seat in 2010.
“I went and had a chat with him, and he said, ‘Always remember, you’re the local representative’.”
It is advice he has taken to heart. “A lot of people are just sitting and waiting at the moment. There’s not a big trend as of yet.
“There are things that people are coming to me with that are really a council issue like litter, potholes. While I can’t go and fix the pothole for them, I can build a picture and then when I go and sit with Mick Cartledge or Charlie Briggs or Lancashire County Council, I can say these are the big issues that are still being brought to me, why is nothing being done about them?
“Having a Conservative government and this being a Conservative seat now, it does open doors. Since being elected I have had a sit-down meeting with Matt Hancock, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, the chancellor, and Jake Berry three times , the Northern Powerhouse minister.
“I want to be visible, to be accessible; as I was during the whole campaign. If I’m sat in a coffee shop I want people to be able to come over and speak to me.
“Yes, I’ll do surgeries so there is a dedicated time but of course people can just come up to me in the street and speak to me.”
Antony does admit that these next four years in Burnley are going to be huge for the party, and says progress must be made.
“It’s a challenge and an opportunity I think. My priority is getting that consistency because I think what people don’t like is when you come and promise one big thing – and you may deliver that big thing – but the thing that makes a real difference to people’s lives is continuous improvement.
“There are a couple of things that people want sorting quickly, and I am going to try my best to do this. One of those is Padiham and the flood defences. I spoke to Mick Cartledge about it, and he said it’s all happening, the Environment Agency has signed it off; but why is it taking so long?
“These things shouldn’t take this long. If we get another big period of rain I don’t want people to look at that and go, ‘well you could have done it quicker but you didn’t’. I will bang on doors to get things like this done.”
Some members of the electorate may view his age as a sign of inexperience.
However, Antony believes he not only has the experience to make a difference, but also the passion to drive the town forward while working towards repairing a splintered political landscape.
“Politics needs to evolve and the nice thing about this parliament now is there’s so many younger MPs; well, people of my age, who have a different world outlook and who have seen this divisive period from the outside and now look at it and go, well we need to do better; because you can’t run a country or bring communities together if you’re just sniping at each other. And this must include more dialogue cross-party.
“One thing that I did notice down in Westminster is that outside of the chamber, everybody is incredibly helpful. Whatever side of the political divide they’re on. The number of Labour MPs that have come up to me and asked if I’m settling in ok; it’s nice.
“Before I was doing this I was working for a bank. It wasn’t just any bank it was the bank that has been through the toughest restructuring in the history of banks in the world.
“RBS went from being the most toxic bank in the world to now a bank that does support communities and if I played a little part in that, then that’s something.
“My job there was to work with the Bank of England and the conduct regulators to make sure the bank was working in the best interests of the customers; so being part of that at a time when it was going through its scandals to what it is now; if I can carry some of that through and go ‘look I have seen big corporations do big changes’, that’s what we’re really talking about with our politics now, aren’t we?”
With the election campaign, his 30th birthday, and an extremely busy festive period firmly behind him, Antony is now looking forward to getting on with the job in hand...as “Boris’ little helper”.
“I’m still in the process of sorting an office. I can’t wait to have one. Christmas is a terrible time to do anything, it’s not an ideal time for an election.
“I don’t think it will ever not feel like a dream being in the chamber. Walking into that building; it’s imposing, it’s exciting.
“The first time I sat on the green benches I had the same feeling I have now. Especially when it’s PMQs you know; the theatrics of something like that. My niece and nephew are seven and five. So my sister now, if she knows I’m on PMQs, she records it, and she’ll play it when they get home from school and send me a video of their reaction. They think I’m Boris’ little helper.”