Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
The UK’s relationship with the EU is a fault line running through the Conservative Party. It has been so for 25 years – and some of those MPs now rattling cages have been the loudest proponents of Brexit.
Some are brave enough to have a pop at the Prime Minister directly. Others wage a proxy war against other leading members of the Cabinet. But if we are now at the stage where self-evident truths about Brexit, whether delivered by the Chancellor or the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, prompt threats towards the stability of the Government, this is not helpful to anyone – particularly not to the country we all say we love, nor the constituents we all say we were elected to serve.
There can be no doubt that there are good reasons for major frustrations with the Government’s handling of Brexit. I’ve been calling for Ministers to publish a position paper on services and, in particular, financial services. Other sectors and issues were covered in a series of position papers published last summer. Why shouldn’t financial services, which employ over a million people and pay billions of pounds in taxes, know what the Government is proposing for them?
Leaving aside my personal views on the EU referendum result I can see, with my legal ‘let’s get this sorted’ hat on, that there are gauntlets which can be thrown down to the EU negotiators and the City of London, following those already cast by the Bank of England in December on the authorisation of EU bank branches.
To take a few: Ministers should be seriously examining and utilising the proposals for an agreement based on mutual recognition put forward by the International Regulatory Strategy Group. They could promise a huge review of the cumulative burden of regulations, when the UK has taken back enough control to be able to repeal or re-shape some existing regulation, and look at personal taxation, as an incentive for brilliant people from overseas to be attracted to working in the sector.
We could say to the EU negotiators that we don’t buy their arguments about financial services not being in a free trade agreement. The Canadian FTA has some provisions on services, as did the proposed TTIP deal. The French President and Italian Prime Minister have both given indications recently that the position in Brussels could be up for some discussion. All of this could be captured in a joint paper between Government and the City of London, and the same could be done for other key sectors such as pharmaceuticals, automotive and data.
Of course, the Prime Minister should be leading the way on this and driving her Ministers to think big and bold. If nothing else it would cheer up and raise the spirits of the Conservative Party in Parliament and in the country. But if that isn’t going to happen, then Cabinet members have a duty, as the senior leaders in the governance of our country, to do it anyway – within the bounds of collective responsibility. And the Prime Minister has a duty to let such bold thinking unfold. What they shouldn’t be doing is licensing their supporters in the Conservative Party to be undermining the leadership in behind-the-scenes briefings and ‘friends of’ comments.
There were times last year for the Prime Minister to step aside – immediately after the June 2017 election, or after Party Conference. That didn’t happen. Maybe the Cabinet should have asked her to go, but they didn’t.
Saturday saw masses of Conservative activists out on doorsteps and campaigning ahead of the May elections under the banner of ‘Tory canvass’. They don’t deserve this drip, drip of bad news about splits in our Party.
Even more importantly, we are now into a critical nine months for the future of the country, so the Cabinet need to get a grip by acting collectively to shape Brexit and agree an ideal end-state based in reality, on what Parliament will approve eventually – and then stick to it. They also need to demonstrate immense Conservative care and competence in the running of their departments. The country and party activists deserve no less.