Nicky Morgan: "I hope building bridges is a really important quality to have in politics.”
The re-appointment of Nicky Morgan to Boris Johnson’s Cabinet raised eyebrows when it was announced in the days after the general election. Recently ennobled, the former MP still plans to “step back” from frontline politics – but insists she is not just keeping the seat warm for her successor. The Culture Secretary speaks to Sebastian Whale
Nicky Morgan had two tasks the Monday after the general election; to take her cats to the vet and convince her son to get going on his Christmas presents. Before she left the house, she took a call from the Prime Minister. “Look, I’ve thought about it, will you stay on and get us through the first few weeks? To do that, will you go to the House of Lords?” Boris Johnson asked. Morgan, who insists this was the first time such an outcome was suggested, was “delighted” to take up the offer.
The culture secretary has just returned from Cabinet as we meet on a miserable January day in Whitehall. Taking a seat on one of two sofas in her departmental office, I point out the elephant in the room. “I didn’t expect to interview you again like this,” I say. Morgan laughs. “I don’t think I expected to be interviewed again like this,” she replies.
On 31 October, Morgan announced that she was stepping down as MP for Loughborough. Citing the “clear impact” her position had on her family, she said she intended to be at home “far more”. She was one of several centrist Conservatives, many of whom were women, to step back from frontline politics.
While her prominent role in the subsequent election campaign raised suspicions, many were surprised to see her retained as culture secretary in the prime minister’s mini-December reshuffle. Downing St were quick to brief that this was only a temporary solution, ahead of an expected revamp of Johnson’s top team after Brexit day at the end of the month. “The prime minister asked me to stay on to help with the new government’s first few weeks to get past the 31st of January. I was very happy to help during the campaign. I felt very strongly that I wanted a Conservative majority government,” Morgan says.
Formerly dubbed a Brexit ‘mutineer’, Morgan now finds herself derided by some of those she was previously aligned with. The transition began in earnest when she campaigned for the so-called Malthouse compromise solution to the Brexit impasse. Her determination to find a way through the deadlock aggravated pro-Remain campaigners who felt she had jumped ship and sold out. Where once she was a key member of the Tories’ naughty corner, along with the likes of Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry, she was now rubbing shoulders with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker. To some, this was a bridge too far.
Morgan had previously declared that she would not serve under Johnson if he became prime minister, after he described Theresa May’s Brexit plans as a “suicide vest” for the UK. "He knew exactly what he was doing when he was using that language,” she told the Today programme in September 2018. When pressed if she would feature in a government led by Johnson, she replied: “I think I'm very unlikely to be asked but the answer is no. I would not serve in a Boris Johnson cabinet."
Morgan managed to square the circle and accepted the offer to join Johnson’s government when he entered No 10. “I think it’s really important to have a variety of voices around the table with different views on the Conservative party, different views on Brexit, and the prime minister understands and respects that. I also think that if you’re asked to serve your country and parliament then you should say yes unless there’s a very good reason to say no,” she says.
She adds: “The lesson from the last three and a half years and from the general election is the country expects its politicians to be able to put aside their differences and get things done on their behalf. I hope I’ve been able to show that this is possible.”
The Cabinet minister was ennobled the day before we meet, becoming in the process Baroness Morgan of Cotes, a small village near Loughborough. Zac Goldsmith, who lost his Richmond seat at the election, was also made a peer to continue as environment minister. It came almost twelve months after the first meaningful vote was held in the Commons, when a frontbench return looked highly unlikely for Morgan, then chair of the Treasury select committee.
“I look back on my nine and a half years as an MP, did I expect to be part of a Coalition Government? No. Did I expect to be in the Cabinet after four years? No. Did I expect to be chairing a major House of Commons select committee? No. I hope those that are newly-elected are going to enjoy their time in the House of Commons as much as I did,” Morgan says.
She resists the idea that she is just keeping the seat warm in DCMS for her potential successor. But she adds: “My intention to step back remains but I will have the honour of being in the House of Lords.”
If Morgan courted controversy with her positioning on Brexit, her views on VAR, the form of technology that reviews decisions made by referees in football games, will certainly split opinion. “I can see that it’s taken perhaps some of the so-called excitement out of games and everything else, but I suspect that in terms of getting decisions made and people standing by them, I think it’s a good thing,” she argues.
While we could be in the final days of Morgan’s days as a secretary of state, she still has plenty in her in-tray. The morning we meet, the Football Association’s (FA) Paul Elliott calls on the Government to do more to help governing bodies tackle racism in football. Analysis by Kick It Out, the anti-racism campaign group, found a 43% increase in reports of racist abuse during the 2018-19 season from a year earlier. A December game at Tottenham was marred by alleged claims of racist abuse by fans against Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger. “We had hoped that the days of racism and hate-fuelled offences in football and other sports, but it has been football in the past, were over. To see it rear its ugly head again is depressing,” Morgan says.
Ministers will support governing bodies and respond to specific requests to help with tackling racism in football, she continues. “There is always a limit to the effectiveness of politicians in these areas as well though. There’s nothing that can beat a player, a manager who fans respect, a club that’s got enormous public support, also playing their part.”
Gary Neville, the former Manchester United right-back and Sky Sports pundit, argued that the problem extends to UK politics, with both major parties facing accusations of racism within their ranks. While Morgan says politicians must be conscious of everything they say, she continues: “I don’t think anybody indulging in racism in football could look at Westminster and say that gives us an excuse.”
She adds: “It is incumbent on those of us in public life to take down the temperature of situations. That is one of the things I have watched Boris Johnson doing and that’s why working alongside him is so enjoyable. The way he conducts debates and everything else now, he absolutely just does it in a prime ministerial way.”
As for the reasons behind the increase in alleged racist abuse, Morgan says there are too many instances where “people think there aren’t consequences to what they say”. “They operate in an echo chamber, what somebody might say online, the people they follow, the notifications they get are from people who agree with them, so they think it’s acceptable,” she says.
Morgan has also been critical of the FA, after it emerged the organisation had signed a streaming deal via a third party with seven gambling websites to show FA cup ties on their websites and apps. In the third round of the competition, 23 matches were available to watch on Bet365 for anyone who placed a bet or put a deposit in their account 24 hours before kick-off, reported the Daily Mail. In July 2017, the FA announced it was cutting ties with gambling firms, but the deal was signed in January of that year.
“We should be clear that obviously gambling has its place in society, it’s an activity that’s been going on for many years and there are people who gamble on sports or other things and do so without harm and everything else,” she says, before adding: “The FA need to consider their position on this. Frankly, I think leaving it until the contract is up for renewal is just far too late.” Governing bodies like the FA need to take responsibility for the influence they have, she continues. “I’m afraid it’s not just about money. It’s got to be about behaviours and the signals that you’re sending out.” When asked if betting and football were too intertwined, she answers: “That might well be the case.”
After England’s world cup performance in Russia two years ago, the Three Lions head into this year’s European championships with some hope. But Morgan will not be drawn on predictions. “We thought Gary Lineker should stay commenting on sport, I’m going to stay commenting on politics!” she says.
Our interview comes the day after the nominations are announced for this year’s academy awards. Like the Golden Globes before them, the Oscars faced criticism for a lack of diversity among nominees, with no women directors nominated in the Best Director category. Morgan, a former minister for women and equalities, believes something is going wrong. “If they’re concerned about the lack of diversity – this is not the first year this has happened – they need to be specifically saying, ‘We want there to be more women’… If we want more female director talent, they need to see existing female directors being rewarded,” she says.
She adds: “Whether there is a very strong nudge or a period of time in which they say, “Right, for the next five years we’re going to make sure that we don’t have all-male best director nominees”, but there’s got to be something. It’s not enough just to wring their hands. Surely 2021 has got to be the year where there is a more diverse set of nominees.”
At home, Morgan is keen to champion some good news for the UK’s tech industry. Britain created eight unicorns – start-ups worth more than $1bn – in 2019 with investment in tech reaching £10.1bn last year, up £3.1bn on 2018. The speed of growth in the UK is faster than the US and China and larger than in France and Germany. “We should be really, really proud of the investments that we are seeing,” Morgan says.
Down the track, DCMS will be carrying out a review of the Gambling Act and also publishing the long-awaited online harms white paper, a subject close to Morgan’s heart after receiving abuse as an MP. “The Government has a duty to make sure what’s illegal offline is illegal online. When we say we want people to be safe on our streets, we want them to be safe online as well. There is a balance and we’ve got to stay the right side of it. Freedom of expression, freedom of speech, we want the internet to remain free and open,” she says. This year will also see major sporting events including the Olympics in Tokyo.
In all likelihood, many of these upcoming projects will be awaiting her successor. With Dominic Cummings’ plans for an overhaul of Whitehall appearing to be scaled back, the future of her department is perhaps more certain than it might have previously been.
Though we have been caught off guard before, Morgan appears to be in her last weeks as Secretary of State. As a peer she plans to speak out on causes such as character education and the building of resilience in young people, and matters related to her time as Treasury select committee chair. “I am also looking forward to taking a step back into corporate life or something else outside as well,” she adds.
I wonder if the criticism she has faced has troubled her. “At the end of the day, that’s for them. The way of coping with being in the public eye and public life is to think about my own conduct and to explain the reasons why I’ve made the decisions that I have,” she says.
The village that Morgan is now associated with was the scene of a civil war battle, the Battle of Cotes Bridge. A fellow former MP told her, “That’s a really good symbol for you, Nicky, because you’ve tried to be a bridge builder.”
Morgan concludes: “It’s been an extraordinary year trying to work with people on different sides of the Brexit debate to bring people together. Building bridges is a really important quality to have in politics.”
Nicky Morgan on the licence fee
“We want great broadcasting, but the way people consume television, news and broadcasting is changing. It’s why we need better connectivity, for example. The younger generation don’t watch live TV or terrestrial TV in the same way. They want to be able to download what they want, when they want it and have all that content.
“The BBC and others have got to keep up with that. MPs are getting an awful lot more pushback from ordinary folk over ‘Why do we pay the licence fee, what are we getting for it?’ This is something we’re going to have to be open to looking at. We’ll see. It’s a big step, a huge step. What I don’t want to see is the BBC’s income being put under threat to such an extent that the diversity and breadth of their programming is something that we don’t see in the future.”
Nicky Morgan on Huawei:
“We have been very clear as a government that Huawei will never be in our critical national infrastructure and that position will remain in place. But we will have that discussion. It’s a very important discussion. We published as a department last summer the telecoms supply chain review and making sure that we’ve actually got a breadth of providers is very important.”
Nicky Morgan on the Royal Family:
“Undoubtedly, the Royal Family is a huge asset for the United Kingdom and will continue to be whatever the developments are. The prime minister was right this morning when he said the situation is not going to be resolved by politicians commenting on it. I just wish all parties well. The Royal Family is a huge asset to this country. Canada is a great ally, and if they’re going to be seeing more of some of the royals, that’s a really positive thing.”