Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
What does the ‘national interest’ now demand of MPs?
We know that Brexit is an extraordinary political process, putting unusual strain on our party political system and our constitution. We also know that the stakes are getting higher, as March 29th gets closer.
Whatever one thinks about leaving the EU, it cannot be denied that it represents a fundamental change in relations with our nearest neighbours and our trading relationships with the world. Some people think that this change is long overdue, whilst others regret that it is happening at all. The issues are so important that the phrase ‘the national interest’ is being used more and more to argue that various matters relating to Brexit are or are not ‘in the national interest’.
I’ve no doubt that all MPs and Ministers believe that the Brexit path that they are treading is in this interest. Who goes into politics to act against it? And I’ve also no doubt that those who say they are putting Country before Party also sincerely believe that. Ultimately, I’ve no doubt that we all believe we should put country first, constituency second and party last (whatever the whips might say).
But given the very different Brexit scenarios and possible outcomes on offer, how can we all be right? Which option (or perhaps combination of options) can really be said to be in the national interest? Is this why it is easier to know what each of us is against in terms of Brexit than what each of us is in favour of? Is it easier to rule something out as being against the national interest, rather than to say confidently: ‘doing x is definitely in the national interest’?
After the first Meaningful Vote, and the inability of both main Party Leaders to seriously embrace proper cross-party talks, it became clear to me that everyone was going to have to compromise if we are to get a Withdrawal Agreement over the line. And that means we have to start to see that each of us might not have the only answer to what is in the national interest.
I’ve explained elsewhere why I agreed to be part of the ‘Malthouse Compromise’. And I’m now part of the Alternative Arrangements Working Group which spent over six hours with Steve Barclay last week, examining what the alternatives to the backstop might be, as demanded by the Brady amendment.
In the interests of finding that answer, let us then think what the national interest might demand. As Conservatives, we are surely in favour of a stable country with a well-functioning Government able to pass its Budget and its legislation. We want a system of representative democracy which retains the confidence of the electorate. We want to support businesses and entrepreneurs. We want a strong security and defence system. We want a strong economy, and a tax system which allows people to keep as much of the money they earn as possible subject to properly funding a welfare safety net and our public services. We support incremental change, not radical policy moves.
To me, all this would tend to suggest that the best outcome is that the Government remains in control of the Brexit process, and is able to deliver its biggest policy objective and necessary legislation with the support of a majority of its own MPs (and confidence and supply partners too) – thus fulfilling the majority verdict of the referendum and the last general election; implementing a policy which mitigates any economic damage caused by a big change in our trading relationships, and supporting businesses to carry on doing what they do, and our security and defence forces to carry on doing what they do, too. This surely is what the national interest now demands of its MPs.