Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
I don’t know much about football, but I do know that a favourite line of any football commentator is that ‘It’s a game of two halves’. And that applies to UK politics in May 2019. The question is: now we are facing the second half – namely, the European elections – what are Conservative MPs going to do to salvage some kind of positive outcome in that half?
Having expected to only have one set of elections in 2019, we now have two in a month. Local elections are always closer to the hearts of most MPs and local Associations. Councillors form a huge proportion of the Party’s membership and activists. Many MPs have served as councillors and many of our professional staff have ,too.
So to lose over 1300 hard-working and committed local councillors, mostly because of our national political situation, is a real blow. I am pleased to say that, in our corner of Leicestershire, the Conservatives retained control of Charnwood council. Any expectation of a Labour breakthrough was swiftly dispelled.
Nationally, the Labour Party didn’t have a great night either. To end up with a net loss of almost 100 councillors, while the governing party is falling out with everyone and has failed to deliver its single biggest policy commitment, is quite something.
The only message I think we can take away from Thursday’s local elections is that people everywhere are absolutely fed up with the paralysis and lack of momentum in Westminster. The abiding message on our doorsteps was ‘get Brexit sorted’.
In spite of all the confident assertions by various commentators, I see no sign of a united push anywhere either to stop Brexit or go for a ‘no deal’ outcome. To get a united message, if one is possible, we will probably have to wait to see what happens on 23 May. With the Brexit Party and Change UK registered for that election, it may be possible to discern a clearer Brexit message.
But Westminster shouldn’t be waiting for 23 May to hear it. We have 17 days from tomorrow now to find a way to ‘get Brexit sorted’.
So here’s what we can do in the next 17 days – vote for a Withdrawal Agreement or second reading of the Implementation of Withdrawal Bill which sets the UK on a firm path to leave the EU. If Conservative MPs don’t want the Prime Minister to have to rely on Labour votes to get those things over the line then they know what they have to do – vote for the current draft agreement, or vote for Second Reading of the Bill as it is presented to us.
If my colleagues won’t do, that then what choice does the Prime Minister have but to come to an agreement with the Labour Party? And I believe when it comes to it, the majority of the Conservative Parliamentary Party will back her if she does.
Here’s what we don’t have time to do in the next 17 days – change who is Leader of the Conservative Party, change the arithmetic of Parliament or re-open or change the draft Withdrawal Agreement. It is true that the Prime Minister could set out her departure plans in those 17 days. But she’s much more likely to do so if the Withdrawal Agreement has been approved.
As previously set out I’m working with other MPs, such as Greg Hands, on how we can come up with alternative arrangements to deal with the issue of the Irish border. This work is relevant for both phases one and two of the withdrawal process, and in no way pre-judges the future relationship we might have with the EU. Frankly, I’d much rather now get on with this substantive work with a clear sense of future momentum.
Seventeen days to show we heed the message of the electorate, we will find a way through and then we can get on to substantive discussions about the future under new leadership. The choice is ours.