Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
The absence, for several weeks now, of Brexit from proceedings in Parliament and the national media is coming to an end. The report stage of the EU Withdrawal Bill in the Lords, and the UK’s demanding negotiations with the EU Commission, herald the start of some tricky weeks, during which the hard facts and compromises the Prime Minister mentioned in her Mansion House speech will become a reality.
Brexit is demanding and divisive because it really matters. If the UK’s relationship with the EU did not matter, then anti-EU campaigners would not have spent so many decades campaigning for our exit. Whatever your view, it is surely obvious that how our negotiations with the EU end and the final relationship that is agreed will dictate the UK’s future place in the eyes of the world.
So people shouldn’t be surprised that passions run high on all sides. The next six months – until a likely vote on the withdrawal agreement, transition period and framework of a future relationship – are not long, and a lot has to happen, so we all need to keep cool heads.
First, the Lords is perfectly entitled to pass amendments to Bills and ask the Commons to think again on issues. The cool-headed response to this is to disagree with any amendments and debate them. The hot-headed response is to threaten the Lords with abolition. Peers know they are not elected and that, ultimately, it will be MPs who have the final say on the Brexit legislation. If the Commons takes out their amendments, they might send them back to us again, but I expect that would be it: I hear nothing which suggests that peers plan a prolonged ping-pong. So Ministers should let our experienced and knowledgeable peers make their points and have their say, and turn away from those who screech that the Lords just want to derail Brexit.
Second, the Commons has a lot of Brexit legislation, including secondary legislation, to deal with and needs to make progress. MPs have their constituents to listen to, their judgment to use and their experience to rely on. Many of us are members of Select Committees. It won’t come as a shock to Ministers or Whips that the committees have been gathering evidence on Brexit from a whole spectrum of perspectives for many months now. That evidence should be relayed to other MPs in order to inform their consideration of the legislation and the final deal.
We will see this process played out this week in the Backbench Business debate on Thursday on a customs union. MPs may well want a chance to show the Government the balance of opinion in the Commons away from the heat of amendments to bills. Ministers can then take note of what is said and reflect on it before bringing the bills back to the floor of the House. Those who wanted to take back control and assert Parliamentary sovereignty must also surely want the laws which the Commons approves to be thoroughly scrutinised.
Ministers say that they welcome amendments which improve the legislation. Of course, improvement is in the eye of the beholder but, again, the lesson from December’s Commons vote on a meaningful vote over Brexit is that regular and patient dialogue, and discussing with MPs how the trickiest issues can be addressed, is more likely to bear fruit. This will be particularly important over the Irish border where options seem very limited.
Finally, the position of the Prime Minister should not now be in any way under threat. Over the past few weeks ,Theresa May has shown the kind of leadership which Labour MPs can only dream about. She has reacted swiftly and, I believe, entirely appropriately to events in Salisbury and Syria.
And yet we’ve seen over the weekend that one reaction to news that a customs union should be debated is to threaten a leadership contest, and wax lyrical about the Brexit that Leave voters apparently voted for. Destabilising the Government at this point by trying to remove the Prime Minister would be deeply short-sighted. And I want to be very clear that the threats are coming only from one section of my Party, and they aren’t shared by the vast majority of Conservative MPs.
Brexit is, as the Prime Minister’s Mansion House speech captured, a process. All negotiations have their ups and downs. During these coming months, Parliament should debate and unpick some of the most complex issues (and I believe we can help the Government by doing that). We can capture and relay to other MPs the thoughts of those outside politics who are most affected and most interested in Brexit; we can quiz Ministers on their thinking, and we should have an input into the overall process.
Cool-headed Ministers will understand this and are not threatened by it. Those who don’t understand and whose immediate reaction is that their Brexit is threatened pose the real obstacle to ensuring that the Prime Minister is proved right when she said that what will be remembered is not the negotiation but the enduring deal.