The Chair of the Treasury Select Committee says the transition will not be long enough—and takes a pop at Boris Johnson for good measureby Alex Dean / May 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Should Britain stay close to the European Union or prioritise the freedom to strike its own trade deals? This question is currently tearing the government apart as it wrestles with the customs union and what should replace it: a “customs partnership” or “maximum facilitation.”
There is no clarity on this fundamental issue. The Remainers round the cabinet table are insisting on the former, the Brexiteers are insisting on the latter. The longer the farce drags on, the more vocal the Conservative backbenches become.
Among the most senior Remainer backbenchers in the Party is Nicky Morgan, who served as Education Secretary and now Chairs the influential Treasury Select Committee. She featured on the infamous “mutineers” Telegraph front page after voting against the government and has been outspoken throughout the exit process.
When we discussed the current impasse, Morgan had a scathing verdict on the hard Brexiteers. It feels “like the prime minister is being held to ransom,” she said. One culprit is Jacob Rees-Mogg and his “European Research Group.”
For Morgan, it is a problem “when the ERG sends letters signed by lots of them, dictating terms almost to the prime minister.”
It becomes even worse when, to use her words, “members of the cabinet, in particular the foreign secretary, feel they can openly criticise something the PM has made clear privately that she supports.”
Should Boris Johnson resign? “Brexit is so extraordinary in so many ways… I think in normal circumstances she would have asked him to consider his position.”
This will set the gossip mill spinning. But I wanted to turn to policy: which customs model would Morgan herself prefer?
“Conservative MPs were all given presentations yesterday. Gavin Barwell [May’s Chief of Staff] gave a fair presentation on both options, they were honest enough to say that both are untested and that there are flaws with both.”
“What we read in newspapers is that the PM prefers the customs partnership, which signals an ongoing relationship with the European Union, which is something that I very much support.”
There is no guarantee that this will win out. But if no accommodation can be reached, what then? According to Morgan, parliament could take back control.
“There’s no doubt parliament is beginning to signal… that if there isn’t a resolution in cabinet amongst ministers then parliament will make its views known, and that will require the government to explore some form of a customs union.”
This would be a devastating defeat for the prime minister on a key policy plank. It is difficult to see how she could survive it; that the warning is coming from her own backbenchers makes it only more striking.
Parliament will also soon face a choice on whether Britain should remain in the European Economic Area. The House of Lords has amended the withdrawal legislation to put this option back on the table—something which Morgan supports.
“They’ve done their job, saying to MPs ‘do you want to think again about this?’ and I think that we should,” she said.
This would mean the continued free movement of people, but Morgan would much prefer continued close alignment with Europe than a hard exit, which she warned would be “catastrophic.”
With so much uncertainty swirling round in the system, another major worry is time. The government has only a few months to secure a transition deal, but even this will last only to 2020. It may not be enough to prepare for full departure.
On this Morgan was forthright. “Undoubtedly we are not going to be ready by the end of the transition period, I would say for quite a number of things,” she warned. “I mean particularly policing our customs.”
“I asked the PM that question at the end of a committee in March and she said, I think, to paraphrase, ‘as we know more on these things we discover that we need more time.’”
With so many unknowns, what is likely to happen now? How will Brexit play out?
“Let’s hope there are signs that actually the PM is going to be much clearer about what she wants to see, and I think that would be a good thing for the party.”
I asked whether May should continue in her post through the 2022 election. “I think I’ve been pretty clear in the past that we will need to revisit the leadership question at some point in the future,” Morgan said, adding that the question “is certainly not imminent.”
“But at the end of the day we as a party have to think about having the right person in the leadership in the run up to the general election, who’s going to make sure that we not only hold marginal seats but win more back.”
In Brexit land, 2022 feels a long time in the future. In the meantime, Morgan will continue to make her voice heard. Only the day before we spoke she had launched a new campaign against hard exit.
The fight never stops. And that’s because the consequences of getting Brexit wrong, Morgan said simply, could be “absolutely enormous.”