Nicky Morgan: “One person’s rebel is another person’s freedom fighter”
Nicky Morgan has made a remarkable transition from loyal Cabinet minister to a ‘Brexit mutineer’. But far from shying away from her newfound rebel status, the chair of the Treasury Select Committee is taking on her critics. She speaks to Sebastian Whale
A cut out of the 15 November edition of the Daily Telegraph was the last thing I expected to see blu-tacked to the walls of Nicky Morgan’s parliamentary office. Now slightly discoloured, ‘The Brexit Mutineers’ headline screams from the faded front page, with the mugshots of Tory rebels laid out like a most wanted list. Of all the hallmarks to her parliamentary career, why give this pride of place?
“We’re all secretly rather, what’s the word I’m looking for?” Proud? “Yeah. It’s quite a thing to have 15 Conservative MPs named on the front page of what’s traditionally been a Conservative-supporting newspaper, who are effectively being told that by doing your job as an MP in scrutinising what is the most important bill to go through parliament for many, many years, that somehow you are being a mutineer. It’s something to remind us of the extraordinary times that we live in.”
The controversial splash, published soon after the EU (Withdrawal) Bill returned to the Commons, points to a remarkable transformation in Morgan’s political life. A one-time loyal Cabinet minister in David Cameron’s government, who you’d be hard pressed to find deviating from the party line, now finds herself as a key feature in the new Tory awkward squad.
Since being unceremoniously sacked as education secretary in July 2016, Morgan has not been afraid to voice her concerns about the direction of travel on Brexit, nor be an outspoken critic of Theresa May and her stewardship of the Conservative party. How has she found the transition to becoming a Tory rebel?
“One person’s rebel is another person’s freedom fighter, isn’t it? Inevitably, the role of being a backbench Member of Parliament is completely different from being a minister bound by collective responsibility.
“When you are no longer in that ministerial position, of course you are free to say what you think about things, which has its moments of danger, but also has its moments where you actually have to make the most of it,” she says.
And it’s on Brexit where Morgan, a passionate Remainer, feels she had a duty to say her piece. “With Brexit, the extraordinary strain it’s put on our constitution and our representative democracy, I do sometimes feel like I’m in the middle of the 17th Century when you are standing up for the rights of parliament.
“Anybody who is a backbench Member of Parliament should be doing that at the moment. Democracy is a precious thing and the rights of parliament are a precious thing. It would be too easy just to cede them and then 10, 20, 30 years down the line, to really regret it and think ‘why didn’t we fight a bit harder’, when the next big crisis comes along.”
Morgan and her colleagues were branded “mutineers” for planning to oppose government moves to enshrine in law the exit date from the European Union. A thorough dissection of amendment 381 was conducted during the early days of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s committee stage, with ministers signalling a climbdown was in the offing. But Morgan says that “discussions are still being had”, and warns the government could face defeat as things stand.
“It still remains unclear why that is needed, given the Article 50 date,” she says.
“Those of us who have signalled we will vote against it, and I include myself in that, very much remain of that view. If the 381 amendment was put to a vote in the House of Commons, I think that the government would lose that vote.”
Morgan, the MP for Loughborough, succeeded Andrew Tyrie as chair of the Treasury Select Committee in July, defeating arch-eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg to the coveted post. It marked yet another milestone in Morgan’s return to the political frontline, after the bruising circumstances of her Cabinet ousting 12 months earlier.
We meet on the Monday after the Budget, with Morgan in good spirits. Philip Hammond, under considerable pressure from sceptics on his own side, seems to have emerged relatively unscathed from the highly-charged fiscal event. But beyond headline announcements on abolishing stamp duty for first time buyers on homes under £300,000, lay concerning economic signals on productivity and forecasts predicting economic growth to be less than 2% for each of the next five years.
Morgan believes the Office for Budget Responsibility’s revisions have “really focussed people’s minds as to the challenge that we have ahead of us”. “But this is a Budget where the Chancellor needed to show the government’s vision for Britain, but also, clearly, to show that the government was about more than Brexit. On both those things he succeeded,” she says.
Can she put her finger on what’s prompted the downgraded growth forecasts? “There is undoubtedly economic uncertainty out there,” she says.
Is it a Brexit squeeze? “I think it’s partly a Brexit squeeze. Clearly, the other thing of course is going to be inflation, which is having a knock-on effect on household income.”
She adds: “But yes, the anecdotal evidence is that businesses are putting off investment decisions.”
Before Hammond took to the despatch box at 12.30 on Wednesday afternoon, the sharks were circling. Newspapers were full of stories illuminating the pressure the Chancellor was under to deliver a gaffe-free financial statement, not aided by an error-strewn appearance on the Sunday shows that preceded it. Does Morgan think he did enough to keep the wolves at bay?
“I do. Looking at the comments from right the way across the Conservative party, people do recognise that what he has done is he has drawn a line in the sand after what’s been a very difficult 2017 for the Conservative party, and hopefully provided some good momentum forward to tackle some of the issues,” she says.
But while Morgan praises Hammond for “steering a nimble path”, and recognising the statement was more “political than economic”, the Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies painted a stark picture of stagnant wage growth and mounting debt in their post-Budget assessments. As opposed to deft political touches, doesn’t the UK need radical change to navigate these difficult times?
“That will come, to be fair,” Morgan replies. She argues the B-word is taking up much of the brainpower in the Civil Service, and leaves the Chancellor without much wriggle room. “One of my concerns of all this has been that the oxygen is being sucked out of Whitehall, all the bright people in Whitehall are being sent to go and work in the Brexit-facing departments. So, having the brain space then to come up with the bold ideas, the things that are going to drive economic growth and encourage people to export more, inevitably that has to go lower down the pecking order while these negotiations are up front.”
One thing that was clear from the Budget was the Chancellor bringing an end to austerity, pledging to spend £25bn more than the Treasury would take in. Morgan recognises this assessment: “Undoubtedly it was a fiscal loosening. He would describe it as such, and I think that’s probably right.”
Hammond has the unenviable task of appearing before the Treasury committee on 6 December. The group will also continue to hold Mark Carney to account until he resigns as Governor of the Bank of England in June 2019. At present, there is just one woman on the Bank’s monetary policy committee, Silvana Tenreyro, who joined as an external member earlier this year. Would Morgan, whose committee has launched an inquiry into women in finance, like to see a woman replace the Canadian?
“I think it would be fantastic,” she says. “In the same way that I think having female prime ministers is really important, and women in the Cabinet, it would be great to see a female governor of the Bank of England.”
Hammond also assigned an additional £3bn to help with Brexit preparations, leaving some to conclude that the Chancellor is contingency planning for a no deal EU-exit. Morgan, who says it is responsible to set aside cash for “all eventualities”, remains of the view that such an outcome would be “very, very damaging” for the UK.
“Those people who seem to think no deal is somehow not going to be painful, I think are doing themselves, but more importantly the country, no favours whatsoever. Everything I’ve heard from the Prime Minister, both publicly and privately, has been that she absolutely wants there to be a deal. It’s incumbent on all of us to support her in that.”
Despite the recent stalemate, she is optimistic that agreements can be reached and signed off in time for the Article 50 deadline of March 2019. At least that will be the case if her fellow members of the Tory awkward squad have anything to say about it.
Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, Bob Neill, Ken Clarke and others have become quite the clan. Positioned in the top rows of the Tory benches, they support one another’s interventions with fervent enthusiasm. Morgan, as a key player in this pro-Remain contingent, has received backlash for her representations on Brexit. It’s a trend she laments in the strongest terms.
“That has been the extraordinary thing about Brexit, it has put our representative democracy under strain like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I find [myself] having to remind constituents that actually, we do have a system of representative democracy, we’re not delegates, going back to what Edmund Burke said all those years ago, but of course if you have a vote where people have had a direct say, that puts that representative element under significant strain,” she says.
Has the Brexit fallout left her feeling isolated in her own party? “No,” she swiftly replies. “I’ve got many friendships on all sides of the debate as far as Brexit is concerned and long may that continue. Over the last year and a bit has been I’ve got to work with some brilliant people who I haven’t worked with terribly closely before. People like Dominic Grieve, I’ve known Bob Neill for many, many years, and there are people I didn’t know terribly well before like [Foreign Office minister] Alistair Burt… it has been a great joy to get to know people like that as well.
“Undoubtedly, for a period of time, friendships were affected. People have tried really, really hard to not let that be the case on a long-term basis.”
Much of the blame for the division in the Conservative party – and the country – she lays at the door of the government and its approach to Brexit after the PM took office last year. Did this period tarnish the Tory brand?
“I think it did damage the Conservative party, and we saw that in the election result, particularly in London. I also think it damaged relations within the Conservative party,” she says.
“One of the great sadnesses for me and for others about this whole process, has been how divided and how vitriolic some of the things have become both inside the Conservative party, but also outside, and actually how the opportunities to heal some of those divisions haven’t been taken or weren’t taken early enough. So, those divisions still remain, and that has to be a great sadness almost 18 months on from June 2016.”
As we begin to wrap up, I ask whether Morgan would like to return to the Cabinet once more, or whether she is enjoying life as a “mutineer” on the backbenches?
“I’m quite enjoying [the backbenches]. One of my big mottos in life, is don’t go back, don’t look backwards. You have to make the most of every opportunity you’re given. Being a Member of Parliament is a position in which you can absolutely do that,” she says, adding: “I am not expecting a summons from anyone with any job offers any time soon.”
I catch Morgan looking over my right shoulder at the Daily Telegraph front page. The so-called mutineers, Morgan tells me, were part of meetings with “the powers that be in the Conservative party” the afternoon before the paper went to print. “And so, we did wonder how on earth it was that 15 of us were named on the front page of the Telegraph. And I’m not sure we’ll ever know the answer to that question,” she continues.
Could they have been subject to negative briefing?
She smiles. “Who knows?”