Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
Yet again, it seems another momentous week in Westminster looms. Much remains unpredictable – except the fact that the UK will now not be leaving the EU this Friday, March 29. If the draft Withdrawal Agreement had been approved in January, first time round, we would be leaving this week. If it had been approved earlier this month at the second attempt, then we’d probably be well on the way to approving the necessary legislation to ensure the UK left shortly. But that hasn’t happened.
Of course, we might be almost there if the agreement is presented to Parliament for a third time this week, and it is approved. I still think that is the best outcome for everyone – the Prime Minister, Parliament, the stability and ability of the Government to govern, businesses who need to know where they stand, those who’ve campaigned for Brexit for years and EU citizens living in the UK.
Getting the agreement approved would also mean that the UK could start to plan for the second and much more important phase of the Brexit negotiations – the future relationship between the UK and the EU. For this, we will need new Party leadership. But we would have time to organise any leadership contest, if the agreement is passed, in a more orderly fashion – while the EU focuses on the European Parliamentary elections and the appointment of a new commission.
The success of a possible third vote depends on many factors. One is whether or not the Commons gives itself the power to hold indicative votes on Wednesday. The Prime Minister was wrong to say that Parliament hasn’t said what it wants to happen in Brexit – because the Government hasn’t given Parliament any time to vote on different Brexit departure scenarios. We have done what we can through amendments to Bills and amendable motions. I suspect that the Commons will approve indicative votes, and I am minded to support this move, because it now seems the only way for Parliament to have a formal say on the options before us.
Steve Barclay was wrong to say yesterday that the Government will not be taking on board the result of any such indicative votes because they won’t fit with the 2017 Conservative manifesto. That manifesto did not result in a majority Conservative Government with the ability to freely implement its programme. But the Government never seems to have realised that, as one former Chief Whip puts it, in a minority Government situation “power moves from Downing Street to the floor of the House of Commons”.
There is of course a real danger in holding indicative votes that there may be no option which receives overall support from MPs, although there may be some which come close. My colleagues need to be very alive to this possibility, because this is exactly what those campaigning for a second referendum want to happen. Their hope is that the Commons will demonstrate that it can’t reach a conclusion – and therefore Brexit must be returned to the electorate for a final say. If we don’t want to fall into that trap, then we will need to coalesce around at least one of the options, so that we can send a strong signal to the Government.
There is some debate about how the indicative votes should be conducted so that MPs do reach a decision. One proposal put forward by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research would help us to reach a final identified alternative.
Of course, as the Brexit Secretary said, the Government may not then listen to Parliament’s view. This would be entirely consistent with its failure to capitalise properly on the Brady amendment. It would deepen the current political and constitutional crisis, and strengthen the hand of those working for a second referendum – something the Prime Minister has consistently said she opposed. In any event, a move to indicative votes could also set a precedent for the future – that Parliament can take control of the Commons’ Order Paper, which could well be game-changing for both this and future governments.