Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
It feels as if the whole nation has benefited from the relative peace on the Brexit front since Parliament started its Easter recess. But as MPs return to Westminster tomorrow, it seems unlikely that the calm can hold (although our local election campaigners doubtless wish that it would).
Of course, if 34 more Conservative MPs had voted to support the Withdrawal Agreement, Brexit would have taken place on March 29th as promised, the Brexit debate would have moved on – and the contest for the next leader of the Conservative Party would probably be starting formally.
Instead, some of my fellow Conservative MPs are collecting signatures to try to hasten the departure of John Bercow from the Speaker’s Chair. Others are working with “Stand up 4 Brexit” to try to change the leadership rules to hasten the departure of Theresa May. Others still state categorically that the EU Parliament elections cannot be allowed to take place – and yet the law is clear that they must, because the UK is still a member of the EU.
The ability of MPs to miss the bigger picture is, I believe, what is making the nation even more furious with us. Bercow wouldn’t have been asked to stand up for MPs against the Government if the Government had a majority ,and could get its business through the Commons. The Speaker isn’t responsible for the Government’s Brexit shortcomings.
The Prime Minister’s leadership wouldn’t be under such challenge if she hadn’t tried to force through a Withdrawal Agreement containing an effective customs union arrangement. And that wouldn’t have been so unpalatable to so many if she hadn’t raised expectations of ‘no deal being better than a bad deal’ many months ago.
And we wouldn’t be hurriedly selecting MEP candidates and fighting these elections if the Commons had approved, however narrowly, the terms of the UK’s EU withdrawal within the last four months.
Like so much else in this wretched Brexit debacle, we are engaged in proxy battles rather than debating the real thing. Although the Commons is good at debating process, we still aren’t really debating the nuts and bolts of Brexit – and the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
And one of the greatest proxy battles in all of this is the issue of the border on the island of Ireland, which can’t be finally resolved until we know the shape of the future relationship between the UK and the EU. As we’ve seen in recent days with the tragic murder of Lyra McKee, tensions in Northern Ireland remain at simmering point. Meanwhile, we spend our time debating a backstop which no one wants to come into effect to solve a problem that no one wants to see unfold – namely, a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Last week, according to a leaked Home Office document, it was revealed that we are apparently a decade away from technology ‘to avoid a hard border’. I doubt very much, if this problem were left with the private sector, that this would be the case. But the sense of ‘if its not invented here in government then we don’t want to countenance it’ was very strong when a group of us discussed alternative arrangements with the Brexit Secretary and civil servants in February. So I can well believe that this reflects the advice given by officials to Ministers.
Yet we know that the EU has already opened the door to starting discussions about such alternative arrangements the minute that the Withdrawal Agreement is approved. The Strasbourg Instrument on the Withdrawal Agreement dated March 11th says this: “The Union and the United Kingdom are therefore committed to working speedily on a subsequent agreement that establishes by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements, so that the backstop will not need to be triggered. …The Union and the United Kingdom further agree to establish, immediately following the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, a negotiating track for replacing the customs and regulatory alignment in goods elements of the Protocol with alternative arrangements.“
So the reality is that this debate has almost nothing to do with technology. It has to do with an interpretation of the phrase “the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls” from the December 2017 Joint Report. If it could be understood to mean the absence of physical infrastructure on the border and no customs formalities at the border, then the problem becomes soluble, potentially in a way which avoids the need for the backstop, as long as various derogations from existing regulations and systems can be agreed. And, if the EU thinks alternative arrangements can be agreed then it must be assumed, they are open to making these changes.
My hope is that MPs could approve the Withdrawal Agreement in order to get on to the discussion about Alternative Arrangements. Unfortunately, that now seems less and less likely, which means it is probable that, this week and next week and beyond, we slip back to discuss process and proxy battles rather than substance. No wonder the country is so furious with us.