Penny Mordaunt is MP for Portsmouth North, and is a former Defence Secretary and International Development Secretary. Dan Hodges will be interviewing her about this article at the Big Ideas Tent Festival later today.
I told an elderly constituent that I was going to a “Big Tent event” this weekend.
“Big Ted?”, she replied. “Teddy Boys?”
“No.” I said. “A……Big……TENT..ER” I replied.
“You going camping?”
“No”, I said. “It’s in London and it’s not that sort of tent.”
“Oh, I see. So it’s like a music festival! Like the Isle of Wight?”
“No”, I said. “It’s not that sort of festival. We’re going to talk about politics stuff like Brexit and Trump.”
“Oh, I am sorry”, she said. “Well maybe it’ll be raining and it will be cancelled”.
Doris is wise. She tells you a lot about the way people think about politics these days. They hate the fighting and the hysterics. Nobody wants to hear it any more. It’s a big turn off.
So let’s clear up a few things right away. There’s a lot we all agree on.
We love our country. We love our union. We love our democracy. We love our monarchy. We all love a good takeaway. And the thing we take really seriously is our cricket. There weren’t any Brexiteers or Remainers watching Ben Stokes score his century. Just some very proud people.
So let’s be clear about a few things.
Democracy won’t die if a Prime Minister prorogues Parliament. It will though if we lose sight of what unites us. It will if we lose respect, plurality of thought and the ability to think critically.
So hang on to your hats, I’m about to say something controversial.
I think that we will look back on this part of our history with pride.
I know commentators and many of the public are exasperated. That other nations look on smugly smirking at “what a state” we are in. I know individuals and business have been poorly served – and we must deliver certainty to them all soon.
Yes, you want to throw things at the telly every time some of our fellow citizens appear, telling us we have collectively lost our minds, or to play the glockenspiel in protest in the background of the 10pm news.
I know MPs have not covered themselves in glory. That the very idea of referenda brings you out in a rash. And I know many of you, sensible, practically minded folk are just exhausted at the relentless argy-bargy, irrational hysteria from all sides.
But I stand by what I say. The fact that we had the courage to put the question. That we trusted the public to decide. That despite the complexity, the difficulty, the opposition, we as a nation are determined to deliver. We were right to hold a referendum. What else could have resolved the distinct unease so many in our country felt at being part of the EU on its current trajectory? We have tested our political and legal institutions to the hilt, and yet they remain strong. The fact that so many people who voted to remain in the EU accepted the result because they trust in those institutions.
Well, that’s a great thing. And we are a great country.
But I know it has been painful. We’ve lost a little pride and trust in each other. And that’s damaging for our politics and all we want to achieve as a nation. So how do we move past the division and the anger? How to we restore pride in ourselves, pride that is necessary if we are to have the ambition and confidence, we will need post Brexit? How do we remake ourselves?
The Big Ideas Tent Festival – a cross-party and no-party initiative spearheaded by George Freeman – takes place this weekend. Its goal is to bring people together to talk about the things we all care about. I hope all have a great day, but also that it will serve as a timely reminder to MPs who reconvene next week to focus less on Punch and Judy protest and more on the substance of the issue before us. It is incumbent on all of us – not just the Prime Minister – to show leadership at this time. And exiting the EU in a way which is best for the UK must be part of a programme to swiftly restore the standing of our politics and trust and confidence in each other.
We have that opportunity next week.
There is talk of parliamentary gymnastics to stop a No Deal, while the clock ticks down to precisely that. Have we learnt nothing? If you don’t want to leave without a deal, then you need to get one.
If we focus on that real issue, and the outcome I think most MPs want to see, then our actions could be the start of restoring that pride and trust.
The nation needs us to deliver on the referendum. I know the chap outside Parliament with the glockenspiel doesn’t, nor do those MPs who want to stop any form of Brexit. But a majority voted for it and an even larger majority wants us to get it done. So if, like me, you hope to do better than parting on WTO terms or in a disorderly way, can I suggest that we all focus our efforts on ensuring we secure a deal.
There’s not been much commentary on the chances of a deal, but there is a good chance. It is, and has always been, manifestly in the interests of EU member states that the UK secures one. Commissioners recognise, and have said, that they know they must compromise further to give the UK Parliament an acceptable arrangement. There is no practical impediment to it. It’s a matter of political will. It’s a matter of good will.
I’ve been struck that those objecting to the Prime Minister’s latest move only seem to talk of being able to debate Brexit or stop no Brexit. Not a pip-squeak about the time it may take to get a deal negotiated and passed through both Houses.
All efforts should be on that task. It’ll be a challenge in the timeframe, even if the starting point for it is the Withdrawal Agreement.
So next week MPs’ true motivations will be laid bare. Shall we triangulate against the new Prime Minister for political advantage? Shall we prevent the will of the people being delivered? Shall we assert we’ve “no mandate for No Deal” ignoring that 17.4 million voted to “leave the EU” – no ifs, no buts? Do so and your true motives or susceptibility to Westminster group-think will be laid bare.
Instead of the theatre of staging an alternative parliament, why not spend some time persuading your EU sister parties of the merits of an amicable settlement?
Instead of blocking highways and by-ways, why not help organise your local EU citizens to write to the governments of their member states?
Instead of describing just how ghastly you think your Parliamentary representatives are, why not think how you might resolve this moment of crisis without creating another?
If you really can’t face helping Brexit in any form perhaps you could speak to the Commission about the unease felt by the British people about the EU’s current trajectory, and how they might reform? Or persuade them that an implementation period is a good idea, as it would be for those who want the UK to have second thoughts? Or apply pressure on both sides to give EU and British citizens working here and in Europe the certainty they need?
And press the Prime Minister on the timetable for a newly negotiated deal to pass Parliament before 31st October.
We’re all responsible for what happens next. Help or hinder, the choice is ours.
If we work together, we can and will repay the trust the public still have in Parliament. If we manage a good Brexit against this backdrop it will not only be a great thing, it will be an historic thing.
It will give hope to others and confidence in ourselves. Our determination to make a success of it, against all the odds, should send a clear message to all that we are a great nation capable of determined acts to consciously chart our way in the world. That sort of behaviour has marked our history and it will our future, too. We will stand on our own for what we believe to be right, and we trust in democracy, whatever the cost. Because the politicians couldn’t decide, we thought we’d ask the people. And they told us.
There are those who see the future of British politics as a fight between two forms of populism – left and right. That’s not inevitable. If we are to have a richer, more capable form of politics, then Brexit is a necessary but not sufficient condition.
Our political parties must remain broad churches. Big tents, shall we say!
We need debate and competing ideas, but also cooperation and respect for each other. The narrative that sees all conservatives as evil, or all socialists as daft, must be rejected. We should do this by setting agreeing the national missions that can unite our nation.
The Prime Minister is seeking a consensus on social care. Perhaps he does not want to make it an election issue, perhaps he recognises he needs to build support to get any enabling legislation through Parliament. And perhaps he may recognise that on these big issues they require public buy in and a long-term approach. I do not know his motivations, but he is right to tackle the issue swiftly and he is right to seek buy-in from others.
But if this is right could not the same be said for other areas of policy?
The future of the railways?
How about a new economic model based on housing?
What about defence procurement, which can take decades?
And if that is the case for domestic policy, surely it is doubly true of our foreign policy.
Our stance towards partner nations. Or major global challenges such as climate change and plastic pollution.
Building a consensus especially across party lines would seem a sensible thing to do, yet it is rarely mooted except in exceptional times.
There have been attempts to explicitly build a political narrative around this approach, such as Blair’s third way, but that had more to do with the Labour Party’s internal strife than bringing the nation together.
Holding the centre ground has long been seen as the way to win elections. But the centre is not just a place to win from, it’s a place to deliver from, too.
The only way to create, the growth, the focus, the long-term new investment, the sustained effort and understanding to address the challenges and seize the opportunities of our times is to create national missions the whole country can get behind.
Take the example of social care. Our goal should surely be that every one of our citizens can live in dignity and be supporting to live a meaningful and fulfilled life. A way of raising new funding isn’t all that is required. Care systems for older people are linked to care for children and adults of working age. They are linked to potential employment rights for carers, how local authorities can commission services to promote innovation and quality, or their policies on council tax discounts and planning so that it is easier for people to take care of their relatives at home, the support of the third sector, a culture of caring as well as skills in a valued and appropriately remunerated workforce and new technical innovation. To get everyone who can contribute to that we need understanding of what the nation is trying to do over and beyond budgetary cycles, or parliaments and governments.
People want politicians from across the divide to work together. They want us to agree on more, in part because they want reassurance in an increasingly complex and troublesome world.
Gone are the days when all keeping themselves safe required was for them to lock the front door. People are feeling more and more powerless. But being told they are more and more responsible.
As we grapple with issues of terrorism, Huawei, global warming, a potential repeat of the financial collapse, and the challenges of AI and new technology, then a consensus from your elected representatives is rather reassuring.
No wonder organisations like Onward are pointing out the importance of security and belonging to voters, not just freedom and choice. They want us to make the right call on issues which affect their lives. They want us to do a good job.
Despite everything, and their disappointment, the people have faith still in our democracy.
So, we must not let those who have put their faith in us down.
Democracy isn’t under threat from a Prime Minister who will prorogue parliament, or a Queen who consents to it. It is under threat from a lack of responsibility and an absence of critical thinking from many in public life.
That is why the Big Tent is such an important initiative. And why the actions of MPs next week could have huge ramifications for politics in years to come.
So, next week lets help not hinder. Let’s get a good Brexit done. Let’s end the toxic tribalism affecting our parties and our politics and start the healing.
We don’t have to all agree. We just have to respect plurality of thought, each other and the results of referenda.
Next year, I may bring Doris with me to the Big Tent. I like to think she’d enjoy hearing about the things that unify rather than divide us.
Whenever I think about what I do, I sometimes ask myself, would Doris be proud?
And by this time next year, do you know? I think she would.