Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
It feels as if this will be a momentous week for Parliament and for the Government and therefore for the whole of the UK. I still maintain that most people simply want us to ‘get on with Brexit’, and would much rather MPs and Ministers spend more time discussing the issues they really care about.
At this early stage of the week, it seems we will have three key votes – although if the draft Withdrawal Agreement is approved on Tuesday, then subsequent planned votes on No Deal (on Wednesday) and, if the Commons votes against No Deal, on extending Article 50 (on Thursday) won’t be needed. And it would be better if we didn’t have to have them – which is one of the reasons I will support the Withdrawal Agreement.
How should this week’s votes be approached? I’d like to suggest that all Conservative MPs should ask ourselves the following five questions.
1. Does how I vote respect the result of the referendum?
Apart from Ken Clarke, we all voted to trigger Article 50. Which presumably means that we all accepted, or at least were reconciled, to delivering the referendum result. So anything we do this week should get us a step closer to the UK leaving the EU – not make that less likely to happen. The Withdrawal Agreement does just that. Extending Article 50 would not – although a short technical extension to allow the necessary withdrawal legislation to be passed is understandable.
2. Does how I vote provide more certainty for businesses and individuals and stability for the country?
A Withdrawal Agreement which leads to the UK exiting the EU in an orderly manner on 29th March is the best way to enhance the stability of the Government and the country. It would also stop talk of No Deal. And it would enable businesses and EU citizens living here, as well as many UK citizens in the EU, to know where they stand for the transition period.
Stopping a No Deal Brexit on March 29th might well be welcomed by businesses, individuals and the markets. But such a decision would be temporary, because it is simply not possible to prevent No Deal in all circumstances. There are two sides to every negotiation, and ultimately they do not have to each a deal.
Extending Article 50 by a short period of time might stop a disorderly Brexit in only a few days’ time, but a short three-month extension with no purpose would be next to useless. It would provide no more certainty to businesses and individuals. If the Government decides by Thursday that it wants an extension, it will have to say how long Ministers want to last, and what they will do with it.
Would the Government’s red lines be dramatically changed to pivot towards “Common Market 2.0” (accepting in the course of so doing that such a plan would likely to split the Conservative Party)? Would it be used to prepare further for No Deal being in place at the end of the extension period? Would it perhaps be used to explore Malthouse Plan B, and to negotiate alternative arrangements to the backstop?
If Ministers can’t answer those questions, then I suspect that an extension is in doubt. And even if it is approved and requested, would it be agreed by the EU and, if so, what conditions would they impose?
3. Does how I vote help the Government or help those who don’t support it?
Any actions which make the Government look less stable and united are damaging in the short and long term. Ministers voting in different lobbies on No Deal or Article 50 extension will look terrible. We should try not to get to that stage – which means approving the Withdrawal Agreement. And those in talks with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party should be clear about its motivations. In no way does Labour want to help the Government. For the party, the socialist revolution is more likely to flourish amidst the chaos of a split Government.
4. Does my vote make a second referendum or a general election more likely?
I’ve previously set out for this site my firm view that a second referendum is a very bad idea, and risks undermining the belief that, if the British people vote, the result will be honoured. If the Withdrawal Agreement is not approved, and we enter No Deal and Article 50 extension votes with amendable motions, then we will undoubtedly enter the realm of amendments calling for indicative votes on options that will include a second referendum. I believe that most Conservative MPs want to try to move forward – not re-live the last three years over again. In a similar vein I have yet to meet a Conservative MP, activist or supporter who wants an early election.
5. Is my vote more about what I think than about what is right for the country?
Lee Rowley gave an excellent speech in the Brexit debate held on 27th February. As he said very powerfully “It’s not about you” – i.e: Brexit is not about our own personal views. MPs are representatives – are we really hearing and representing the country at the moment, or have we convinced ourselves that our own views on Brexit matter more?
Where’s the compromising and the leadership we should be showing by focusing on the bigger picture, not what is going on inside our heads and hearts? If delivering Brexit and maintaining a Conservative Government is your broader goal, then voting for the Withdrawal Agreement, however imperfect, is the only course of action that makes that more likely than less likely.
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Brexit doesn’t begin or end this week. But we can bring the withdrawal phase to a close. And we can then get on with thinking about how to, and who should, negotiate the future relationship. The choice between responsible Government or chaos is in our hands. The country will not forgive the Conservatives if we opt for chaos.