Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
I warned in a previously on this site that, if Theresa May’s draft Withdrawal Agreement is voted down, the very people who so desperately want Brexit to happen to may instead secure the very outcome they don’t want – a second referendum with ‘Remain’ as an option on the ballot paper.
There is no majority in the Commons for a second referendum, as Chuka Umunna admitted yesterday. That could begin to change if the Labour Party’s official position changed to backing a second vote. But it can only be guaranteed with support from some Conservative MPs.
I’ve been clear about my support for a Norway Plus option, and I firmly believe that a cross party consensus can be built around access to the Single Market and a customs union. Tomorrow on this website, Nick Boles will set out why the People’s Vote campaign has got it so wrong about Norway Plus. But today, I want to explain why I, a Conservative MP and former Remain campaigner, will not support a second referendum, even if it becomes official Government policy.
At its heart, the battle between a second referendum, headed by the “People’s Vote” campaign, and the Norway Plus option is about whether the result of the 2016 Referendum is accepted or not.
The main aim for those behind the People’s Vote campaign is to overturn the referendum result so that the UK remains in the EU. As one of my Conservative friends told me, having said two years ago that they very reluctantly had decided to accept the result, they now don’t want the UK to leave the EU, and see a second referendum as the way to achieve this objective.
By contrast, those of us supporting Norway Plus accept that 17.4 million people were given the right to vote as they wanted and to expect the result of that vote to be respected. But just because someone has decided to move to a new house doesn’t mean that they want to leave the neighbourhood, and the mandate from the 2016 vote is to leave the EU. It didn’t determine what the shape of the Brexit deal should be.
Those backing the People’s Vote campaign include some master media spinners and PR men. We now see a steady stream of selective polling and information being put out: Labour will fall behind the Liberal Democrats if they work with the Government on Brexit, it is claimed; Scottish Conservatives are apparently ready to back a second referendum; misinformation about the Norway option was provided in a document which Adrian Yalland has now pulled apart; Oliver Letwin and I are working on a second referendum plan, and that the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff is also working on a way to deliver one. All of these tactics are designed to bounce people into backing a second referendum.
At my supermarket surgery on Friday, constituents who were on both sides of the Brexit debate agreed that, if a second referendum is held, they will never vote again – in their view, what would be the point if they could never be confident that a majority vote would be implemented?
We live in a representative democracy which was long fought for. Indeed, it is only a hundred years since 50 per cent of the population were allowed to become MPs. As we’ve found out over the past two years, referendums cut across our representative democracy in a way which is deeply undermining. I have been told too often about the “will of the people” or “we’re not interested in your view, just do what you’ve been instructed to do”. Such sentiments just don’t fit with how elected representatives should conduct themselves.
This complex national situation, which is not yet a crisis but could become one if a ‘no deal’ Brexit unfolds, requires MPs to do our duty and reach a solution in the Commons, not abdicate our responsibility because we can’t see a way to resolve things.
We need to vote on the Withdrawal Agreement soon – much sooner than 14th January – and, if the vote is lost for the Government, then we will need a cross party group of MPs to work together to reach a solution, which will be likely to be based on the Norway option, under which the UK would cease to be a member of the EU but we would avoid crashing our economy.
I sincerely hope that Cabinet ministers realise that such a solution is possible. In 2016, I saw my Party rushing to identify a party leadership candidate who they thought would be a safe pair of hands and find a way through the demands of Brexit. That isn’t quite the way it has turned out. So, this time, let’s try an alternative approach in which we all accept responsibility for our part in this Brexit saga and for reaching a conclusion which can be supported by a majority of MPs. If Parliament really can’t sort this out then, in the words of a constituent: “what are you all there for?” Good question.