Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
In politics, timing is everything: being in the right place at the right time to be selected to fight a seat, responding to a crisis at the right time, or biding your time to stand for a key position. Sometimes getting the timing right is obvious whilst, on other occasions, it works out more through luck than judgment.
The speech that the Prime Minister gave in Florence last Friday was both overdue and well-timed.
It was overdue because, from the summer of 2016 onwards, it has been obvious to anyone with any experience of commercial negotiations that compromises would be necessary if we are to leave the EU without inflicting long-lasting damage to both the UK economy and our national well-being.
And it was well-timed because it came on the heels of the Foreign Secretary’s recent and exceptionally poorly-timed Daily Telegraph article, and it also took place before the Conservative Party Conference. I understand that the Theresa May’s advisers hope that by talking now about our EU negotiations, attention will turn to the Government’s domestic policy agenda at our Manchester conference.
For the sake of the Conservative Party’s future, it is vital that this does happen. Most people in the non-Westminster bubble are heartily sick of Brexit. Having heard the key points from the Prime Minister’s speech they will now be wanting to hear from Ministers about the issues they care most about: schools, health, social care, crime and anti-social behaviour, transport – and the list goes on.
May’s speech was an example of a Conservative leader exemplifying the Party at its pragmatic best. The difference between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party is that we deal with the world and reality as it is – not as some utopia we would like it to be.
And the reality is that the British people did, by a small majority of those who voted on 23 June 2016, vote to leave the EU. They do want greater immigration control, for our Parliament to make our laws, and for us to have relationships with the whole world and not just continental Europe.
But they also want us to continue to co-operate on security and defence matters with our European neighbours, to recognise our geographical proximity to and shared history and values with continental Europe, and to accept that immigration brings many benefits to Britain.
So the Prime Minister’s speech had to balance fulfilling the Leave vote whilst also respecting those who didn’t vote to Leave; those EU citizens living here who are desperately worried about their future status; those employers who want and need to continue to recruit from abroad, and those businesses crying out for a transition period so they only have to make one set of changes to the way they work.
I think that May achieved that balance admirably. Going back to my timing theme, she knows that there has to be time to allow the EU negotiations to succeed, that there must be time for everyone to adjust – but that the transition must also be time-limited so that eventually everyone can move on.
But there was another inevitability about this speech.
There was always going to be a time when the most-pro Brexit voices would be ready to shout ‘betrayal’. They’ve been waiting for the time to accuse those leading the UK’s negotiations of not fulfilling the referendum vote. Some have even tried to say that the reason a transition period is necessary is because customs and border computers – i.e: systems controlled by the Treasury/HMRC and Home Office where leading Brexit pragmatists are in charge – won’t be ready in March 2019.
So it’s also time to push back against these fallacies. It is undoubtedly tough for new systems to be ready to implement complex changes which probably won’t be fully agreed for months to come. It would be easy to say “well let’s leave anyway, and all will be well”, but it would be much harder to sell the inevitable chaos of empty shelves, slow passport approvals and visas refusals to the British public.
Rather than shout betrayal, or look around for people and systems to blame, those who see an establishment plot to thwart Brexit in every dark shadow should ask themselves what practical things they’ve been doing in the past 15 months to prepare for Brexit. Where were their position papers?
Unsurprisingly I, and many others in the Conservative Party who share my views on Brexit, were inundated in the days before the speech by media requests to appear in front of the cameras and speculate about what the Prime Minister might or might not say. We resisted, on the grounds that the Prime Minister deserved time and space to say what needed to be said.
Now she and other Ministers deserve time and space to get stuck into the negotiations and nail down the specifics of a future deal. And, finally, Parliament will need the time and space to debate and fine-tune all the Brexit Bills heading our way.