Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committe, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
Our current parliament has been described as the “Backbencher’s Parliament” due to the parliamentary arithmetic arising from June’s general election. Would that be a bad thing? And what is really meant by it?
There can be no doubt that politics is changing. Traditional party loyalties have broken down. Even between the council elections in May and the election a month later, it could be seen that people were ready to vote very differently. They took much more notice of who the candidates were, what they had done if they were seeking to be re-elected, and what the party behind them was saying in each election. As we know, that didn’t, in many ways, suit the style of campaigning adopted by the national Conservative campaign in June.
Since last year’s EU referendum, I’ve had many more conversations about the nature of having a representative democracy. Because the result has aroused such strong passions, many people call on their MPs either to “respect the result and the will of the people” or to “ignore it because it was, in effect, a minority win due to the numbers who didn’t vote”.
So, being an MP at the moment, and trying to pick one’s way through these minefields, demands and expectations is extremely challenging. In this Parliament, it is becoming more challenging because it is hard to know where the Conservative manifesto stands, due to the election result. This makes life difficult for the whips (it is much easier to persuade an errant backbench MP not to rebel if their whip can point to the fact that the said MP was elected on the basis of a promise in the manifesto which is now being turned into law in the Bill in question) and for managing the relationship with the Lords, which is much less likely to continue to oppose a measure if it was clearly supported by the electorate.
This is why many of us want the Prime Minister and her Cabinet to seek to build a consensus on some of Britain’s most contentious issues – Brexit being the obvious example. It is true that over 80 per cent of the vote in June went to two parties who promised to lead us out of the EU. But what does the election result mean for the detail of those negotiations?
One of the ways to tease out a consensus is, of course, via the cross-party select committees. We do now, finally, have chairs of the committees in place. I am honoured and thrilled to have been elected as the new Chair of the Treasury Select Committee. I am looking forward to seeing who the other committee members will be, and hearing about the areas they would like to hold inquiries on. It is a shame that the process of choosing the membership is taking so long, which means that the committees are unlikely to be able to do any real scrutinising until October. Ministers and whips might breathe a sigh of relief at this. Others will be wondering how it is possible for departments to continue without full scrutiny for almost four months.
I hope we will be able to produce unanimous reports which shine a constructive spotlight on the work of the Treasury and other relevant bodies. In this Parliament, select committees may be able to do some of the heavy lifting, in terms of gathering external expert evidence on new policies, as well as asking Ministers to justify policy decisions in an environment which is less combative than the floor of the Commons.
And, finally, if there is to be a more nuanced approach to government because of the complexion of this Parliament, then the media must play their part too. If someone does put forward an idea, it shouldn’t immediately be leapt upon and pulled apart. There are far too many lobbyists whose job it is to do that, put out a press release, and hope that a journalist pushed for time prints it. There are far too many interviews in which it is plain to see that the only goal of the interviewer is to get a headline for the next news bulletin, rather than have an open discussion about the policy problem the guest MP is trying to navigate.
We have an opportunity to do politics differently. I think it is one that the public hope we will take, but it requires all of us involved in public life to behave rather differently. I hope we rise to this challenge.