Nicky Morgan is MP for Loughborough, and is a former Education Secretary.
Having campaigned for Britain to remain an EU member, and being also on the One-Nation wing of the Conservative Party, I may not be at the top of all Conservative Home readers’ wish lists as a new columnist. But the Conservative Party is a broad church – so I’m delighted to take up the opportunity.
And where else to start other than by noting that is impossible to exaggerate just how absolutely useless Her Majesty’s Official Opposition is at the moment. From Jeremy Corbyn’s abysmal performances at Prime Minister’s Questions to the chaos of their position on this week’s Article 50 Bill, they demonstrate how unfit for office they are every day. That might not matter so much if Britain were not engaged in a momentous change in the direction of our country. We are leaving the EU – and all MPs need to be fully engaged in making our exit the least painful and most sensible it can be.
It was, then, a surprise for me actually to agree with something that Diane Abbott said last week (indeed, this has never happened before). She was asked about Labour’s position on the Bill, and whether they would whip their MPs to support it. In reply, she said that it would be wrong were people in London to second-guess a decision taken by people outside London, and not to support the triggering of Article 50. She has a point – and all MPs need to be aware of this danger as we begin the Article 50 Bill proceedings.
Post-Brexit, much is being written about “identity politics”. We clearly live in a divided country with significant inequalities and communities that are not cohesive. We need to encourage people to find ways of belonging that don’t foster hatred, and allow people to mix with others from different backgrounds. Traditionally, one of the ways of doing this was for people to step forward for public service – to be school governors, church wardens, councillors, charity trustees, and to join political parties.
My belonging has come via the Conservative Party. I’ve been a party member for almost 28 years. I’ve been a voluntary party office-holder, a council candidate, a PPC for six and a half years in a Labour-held marginal and then an MP sitting for a marginal seat. Like many ConservativeHome readers, I know what it is like to knock on endless doors, sit up until midnight writing “In Touches” which few people ever read, organise branch events, sell raffle tickets and set up street stalls.
I’ve made friends, travelled the country, learnt about different issues and been forced to confront inequalities because of my support for the Conservative Party. Many years ago, as a member of Battersea Conservatives, I remember meeting someone who by then worked in the City of London, but who had arrived in the capital decades before with his mother, who was from the Middle East. When asked why he supported the Conservatives, he said that it was because ladies from the local Conservative Women’s Organisation had welcomed his mother, and helped her to adjust to life in a very different part of the world.
So, in dealing with Brexit, we need to be true to what makes us strong as a Party. The best part of the Prime Minister’s recent Lancaster House speech was:
“I want this United Kingdom to emerge from this period of change stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking than ever before. I want us to be a secure, prosperous, tolerant country – a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead. I want us to be a truly Global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike. I want Britain to be what we have the potential, talent and ambition to be. A great, global trading nation that is respected around the world and strong, confident and united at home.”
I can’t think of a single Conservative MP who would disagree with this paragraph. We need to keep this desire for a country and a party which is united and outward-looking at the forefront of our minds as we debate the Bill.
As someone who has been asking questions about the Government’s plan for Brexit – partly because the monumentally incapable official Opposition is not doing its job – I am now being bombarded by constituents and others asking me to oppose the Bill. But I was clear last week that I will be voting in favour of it.
There was no threshold requirement in the original Referendum Act, and whilst I do not want to see a hard, destructive Brexit, MPs must uphold the fair and open democratic vote which took place last June. To those who think there is an option for Parliament to vote down the Article 50 Bill, my response is that this would simply open up a new crisis in our democracy, as MPs would appear to be second-guessing the referendum result, and undermining the very things that last week’s Supreme Court judgment upheld
Yes, the Article 50 Bill needs to be subjected to high-quality debate and scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament. Failing to pass it wouldn’t stop the clock on Brexit – but it would stir up more public anger, create demand for more extreme views to be voiced, and be a nail in the coffin for our parliamentary democracy. And it is this democracy which ultimately will ensure we get the most advantageous Brexit for Britain.