Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
Last week, I was asked to speak at a breakfast on domestic policy priorities. On Thursday, I took part in a backbench debate on Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. And on Saturday, I visited a local opticians to talk about issues affecting their business. How refreshing not to talk about Brexit!
I said to the editor of Conservative Home when discussing this column over the weekend that I almost couldn’t bear to write about Brexit – and Tuesday’s coming debate. The discussion is now so circular – and the lack of focus on anything else so frustrating – when there is so much else to do. But it is of course the biggest political issue confronting us, and so it must be addressed.
After her historic defeat the week before last, the Prime Minister had several choices to make, and one of them was whether she would now try to build a cross-party consensus to get a Brexit deal through the Commons. The alternative was to try to find a way of amending the draft Withdrawal Agreement so that it was then supported, in a future vote, by the majority of Conservative MPs and DUP. And perhaps a few opposition MPs might support it too.
She has chosen the latter course. For understandable reasons, she doesn’t want to be the Conservative Party leader who oversees the split of what is arguably the world’s oldest and most successful political party.
However, allowing a vacuum to develop in relation to her strategy for addressing the Withdrawal Agreement is not working. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that MPs have tabled more and more amendments to try to flush out Downing Street’s next steps.
I would argue that what is needed now is a big, bold offer to the EU and to MPs. If the backstop is such a problem, and imposing a time limit or agreeing a unilateral right of withdrawal are such an issue, then is there another way of achieving the same end?
As some MPs make moves to head off a No Deal outcome to Brexit on 29th March (it is worth noting that is in just 60 days’ time), the clamour about an extension to Article 50 is likely to grow even louder. The way to head these moves off – and this development is anticipated in the Cooper Bill which I am supporting – is to put an agreement in place.
But there is no point in persisting with an agreement which cannot be supported by the majority of the Prime Minister’s own Party and those that she relies upon for votes. If she believes there are changes that might persuade MPs to alter their position on the agreement, then she needs to spell them out rapidly.
And while it might not be possible at this stage to get into great detail, any amendment needs to provide sufficient signals to the EU that, if it is backed by a majority of Conservative MPs and the DUP, it will in turn be the basis of her next ‘ask’ to Brussels. As the Editor of this site wrote yesterday, the best amendment to that purpose would be one tabled by the Government itself.
The reputation of MPs, Parliament and the Conservative Party is not being enhanced by the Brexit process. That message has even reached Buckingham Palace (and the Sandringham Women’s Institute). None of us came into politics to deal with the sterile logjam of Brexit – or to see Whitehall’s bandwidth so constrained that it almost can’t do anything other than Brexit at the moment. Any agreement will be a huge compromise for all of us. But in the national interest we need to get one in place – and we don’t have long to do it.