Nicky Morgan is a former Education Secretary, and is MP for Loughborough.
Tomorrow, I will do something which MPs don’t do as much as they should: I will listen to a Commons debate; listen extra carefully to what the Minister says at the despatch box and then – once I have heard everything – decide how to vote.
Since 2010, in the vast majority of Commons votes, Conservative MPs have been voting to implement manifesto commitments, and are therefore expected to vote in support of the Government. Just occasionally, there have been votes on matters of conscience which are not whipped, and in which MPs therefore vote as their consciences dictate, having first listened to their constituents. When a Minister, I was also bound by collective responsibility. If, in a vote to which that responsibility applied, I had found that I couldn’t support the Government I would have had to resign my position, including as a Parliamentary Private Secretary.
So what is the debate taking place tomorrow? It is the consideration by Commons of the two amendments that the Lords made to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill.
First, I think it entirely within their rights for members of the Lords to ask MPs to be sure that we accept the Government’s position on the areas covered by the amendments which are, in turn, the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and giving Parliament a “meaningful” final vote.
That last Lords amendment calls for Parliament to give its approval for the outcome of the Government’s Brexit negotiations with the EU. In accordance with the ruling of the High Court and Supreme Court, Parliament has had to give its approval via legislation to the start of the Brexit process. In the same way, many members of both Houses firmly believe that Parliament must be involved throughout the negotiations, and that it must have a say at their end.
During the Committee stage of the Bill in the Commons, the Government conceded that Parliament would have “a vote on the final deal in both Houses before it comes into force”. David Jones, Minster at the Department for Exiting the EU, said that: “This will cover both the withdrawal agreement and our future relationship with the European Union. I can confirm that the Government will bring forward a motion on the final agreement, to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before it is concluded. We expect and intend that that will happen before the European Parliament debates and votes on the final agreement. “ In this way, Ministers have given an assurance which deals with paragraphs one to three of the Lords amendment.
In the Commons last month, Jones could offer no certainty about whether Parliament would be able to vote if the Government decided that, in the words of the Prime Minster, “no deal is better than a bad deal.” So it is this point – reflected in paragraph four of the Lords amendment – which Ministers must address in the Commons debate today if they are to gain widespread support in the Conservative Parliamentary Party for both overturning the Lords amendment, and avoiding a prolonged ping-pong between the Commons and Lords this week.
I think that those who say that any such vote amounts to a veto, or is a way to defeat Brexit, or would incentivise the EU to offer us a bad deal are wrong. Many people said that Parliament would stand in the way of the triggering of Article 50 and thwart the ‘will of the people’. But MPs and Peers have shown this fear to be unfounded. And at the end of the negotiations, deal or no deal, Parliament will be very aware just how high the stakes are and of the consequences of a “no” vote.
But it must be the case, particularly for those who argued that leaving the EU was all about taking back control, that this rests with our sovereign Parliament, and that Parliamentary approval is a useful safety valve for any Government. There may be very good reasons for the Government to decide that a deal is impossible to conclude – but Parliament must be involved in that decision, and not sidelined.
Our constituents expect their MPs to have a say on their behalf. We represent not just individuals whose jobs and futures will be affected by Brexit but farmers, businesses, universities and social enterprises who, amongst many others, currently rely on EU funding. It would be a dereliction of Parliament’s duty if we agreed to have no final say on the outcome of the Government’s negotiations. And it would be outrageous for the EU Parliament to have a greater final say than the UK Parliament.
The truth is that Parliament will find a way to have a say. There are various means of doing so – as the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU knows, because he has used most of them himself over the years. And Downing Street and the Whips know this too: so, later today, the Minister should recognise, on behalf of the Government and formally at the despatch box, that Parliament will have its say regardless of whether there is a deal or no deal. That is the assurance I shall be listening out for.