Nicky Morgan grabbed her phone and searched for Sam Gyimah’s number upon reading the Conservative party conference special of The House. Rather than expressing her admiration for such an exquisitely cultivated magazine, the Loughborough MP wanted to congratulate her colleague on his punchy intervention.
The article in question saw Gyimah, the Universities Minister, warn that the Conservatives have “lost their way”. The Tories, he wrote, must reclaim their ‘party of business’ moniker – or risk suffering defeat to Jeremy Corbyn at the next election.
Many have felt compelled to speak out ever since Boris Johnson’s “f*** business” remark came careering into view earlier this year. Gyimah’s piece, which makes more than a passing reference to said comments, resonated with Morgan. “It was an important message to get across,” she wrote to the minister.
We meet on the first day back at Parliament since the conference recess. Morgan, who was an active figure on the fringes once more, believes that the Conservatives must be “critical friends to business”. “We are on businesses’ side, we are on the side of entrepreneurs, wealth creators and job creators. But that then gives us leverage to say to them, ‘hang on, this is not right’,” she tells me in her Portcullis House office.
“For the first year or so of this government’s life, businesses report that they found it very difficult to get their voices heard.”
Morgan has made she sure she has not suffered a similar fate since departing the Cabinet in July 2016. The former Education Secretary has found new life as chair of the Treasury Select Committee and vocal backbencher. A copy of the Daily Telegraph still stands proudly on the walls of her parliamentary abode. Far from shying away from her status as a supposed ‘Brexit mutineer’, the controversial front-page acts as a motivator for Morgan – a reminder of the “extraordinary times we live in” as she told me last year.
Previously talked up as a leadership contender, the Brexit debate has markedly changed the course of Morgan’s political career. As she said in Birmingham this month: “I think my position over the last two and a half years rules me out of being party leader ever.”
Her feelings of alienation came during the first iteration of Theresa May’s government and the approach it took to the negotiations. Wounded after losing ministerial jobs and galvanised to stop the march towards what they deemed to be a damaging hard Brexit, Morgan, Anna Soubry and others formed an unexpected new edition of the Tory Awkward Squad.
But in July of this year, Morgan saw light at the end of the tunnel. Up until then, the government was doing a “very good impression” of not listening to business, she argues. The Prime Minister’s plans for Brexit, casually referred to as Chequers, included plans to keep Britain in the single market for goods – a point of departure for a host of Brexiteer MPs (and a couple of Cabinet ministers to boot) but a positive signal for Morgan’s brigade.
“Chequers is a good basis,” she says, arguing that it recognises the need for integrated supply chains across Europe. However, its “silence” on the services sector is cause for concern. “Undoubtedly, it absolutely did unlock the negotiations, although obviously, Salzburg was very disappointing. But it did help to break some of the logjam.”
Morgan though wants the PM to gravitate more towards her position. “I’m Norway!” she declares, before confirming: “I’m not a Eurovision song contest entry”. “The Norway option would be a sensible place for us to end up. Access to the single market via EFTA, of which the UK is a founder member, and also you have to have alongside that a customs union in order to deal with the Northern Irish border issue,” she says. “We wait to see what happens in terms of the next eight weeks or so.”
Her rhetoric suggests Morgan is keeping an eye on what the Prime Minister returns with later this year. And her committee is determined to ensure that MPs are well briefed of the options on the table.
In June, her committee asked Philip Hammond, Bank of England governor Mark Carney and Andrew Bailey, the CEO of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), to provide analysis on Brexit. She reveals to The House that she has now tasked the FCA and the Bank of England to produce analysis on the impact to the economy of the PM’s deal and “measure it against a no deal scenario and potentially also an EEA scenario”. Her committee will also appoint a special adviser, former OBR member Prof Sir Stephen Nickell, so they can probe the government’s numbers.
“This is a critical decision that is going to define the UK’s place in the world for decades to come. This is a major change in our foreign policy and economic policy,” she says.
“The reason I don’t support a second referendum is I think it should be 650 representatives who have been elected who make the final decisions. But they’ve got to be informed and they’ve got to be briefed and they’ve got to know that they’ve got access to the numbers and to advice and everything else. The Treasury Select Committee’s role is to make sure that they get that.”
Given the players involved – the Treasury, the Bank of England and the FCA – isn’t their analysis likely to invoke eurosceptic backlash?
“We want to have a broad spectrum. In terms of people who give evidence, obviously, it will be the government, the regulator, the Bank of England. But in terms of views, there will be a spectrum.
“We recognise that there are going to be different views on this. But the important thing is that MPs go into that final meaningful vote with their eyes wide open.”
It speaks volumes about what’s at stake this autumn that the Budget is not the major political event in the calendar. And Philip Hammond has his work cut out ahead of 29 October, with the direction of travel on Brexit far from resolved.
His task was made even more demanding after May announced an end to austerity in her party conference speech. Morgan, speaking like a well-tuned minister from the Cameron-Osborne era, says “we would call it living within our means”. The idea that there will suddenly be no spending controls is for the birds, Morgan suggests. “But it is a change of emphasis,” she says.
“What we now need to see is, in a way, the second phase if you like of the Conservative party’s economic plans for being in government. The Prime Minister touched on some of that and the Chancellor did as well in their conference speeches. The Budget provides another opportunity for the next step of that.”
Morgan recognises Hammond’s “very difficult” challenge in delivering a Budget when a Brexit deal is yet to be secured. While she says it’s not her role to second guess the Chancellor, she believes there are some non-EU related issues he could address on areas such as student loans, household finances, and “being ready to intervene in markets that aren’t working for consumers”. Hammond could also set out a direction of travel and outline support for the economy and businesses “over what inevitably, in terms of leaving the EU, is going to be a bumpy period”, she adds.
“Businesses are having to stockpile supplies, potentially do things differently, even find new supply chains. They are calling for there to be some sort of financial business support or understanding. That’s the kind of thing that I think the Chancellor hopefully could set a tone for in terms of giving people confidence, even if he can’t say with any certainty what the final deal is going to look like.”
Morgan argues the Treasury could be the mechanism through which the Tories reclaim their one nation conservatism agenda, by tackling areas such as the poverty premium (where the poor pay more for essential services) and savings.
“The question is going to be, how do we find a national voice on these sorts of issues? The Labour conference a week before ours has definitely concentrated some minds in my party about how these are things that we need to be explicit about addressing.”
The Sunday Times reported that eurosceptic Conservative MPs could vote down the Budget in a show of strength against the government’s Brexit plans. What does Morgan make of the rumours?
“Well, I’m afraid nothing surprises me. We’ve seen this over the years, motions in the Cameron government, threats to vote down the Queen’s speech or to amend it and all the rest of it. Again, it all goes to ‘ideology trumps everything’, which is not the way that the rest of the Conservative party sees it,” she says.
“This is the problem I’m afraid with some of our hardest Brexiteers, which is it’s all about an ideology. That’s what makes me so angry about some of them who are… are business people themselves, they understand how the economy works, they know the risks that we’re running, and yet they put Brexit – and their form of Brexit – above everything else, to the extent where they are willing to risk the Conservative party’s economic reputation. They’ll find that an awful lot of members of the Conservative party and parliamentary party, they will push back on that.”
Successive chancellors have placed great weight on unemployment figures and growth as a measure of underlying economic strength. But amid persistent problems of productivity and wage growth, are they really the best health checks for an economy? Morgan, whose committee has conducted a range of inquiries from cryptocurrencies through to household finances, says unemployment numbers are a good way of measuring organisations’ appetite for hiring – but concedes her party has sometimes been “really good at hiding behind the stats and the numbers”.
“When we came in in 2010, there was a real job to be done to stabilise the economy, to get borrowing under control, to bring back balanced spending and everything else. But inevitably the economy is not a static thing and it will change, and the demographics are changing,” she continues.
“When we talk about productivity up here, actually we’ve got to kind of relate it back to everyday life and everyday experiences. So, when we’re talking about stats like unemployment numbers, we’ve got to then think actually, what are we saying to people for whom actually that hasn’t been their story? I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re in the political situation we are, why people wanted to give the establishment a jolly good kicking in 2016.
“My worry about Brexit… is what’s happening in Brexit is not necessarily going to address those issues or frustrations people voiced in 2016.”
Like many of her colleagues across the House, Morgan has received abuse for her stance on Brexit. Is she concerned by entryism and threats of deselections in the Conservative party?
“There are undoubtedly people joining. What we’re finding is that Jeremy Corbyn is the greatest recruiting sergeant. A lot of people are joining more because of fear of a Labour government than for any other reason,” she says.
“But look, it’s undoubtedly true there are people trying to get into the party who would like nothing more than to deselect Conservatives like me. The good news is that actually there are lots of Conservatives – lots of people came up to me last week at our conference – who have said this is something that they would absolutely abhor.”
Amid this febrile political environment, has she ever felt the fight wasn’t worth it?
“There are certainly days when you’ve had to report things to the police, the day when I had to potentially go to Walsall magistrates court to give evidence against somebody who wanted me dead, those are days when you think, ‘actually, this isn’t quite what I signed up for’,” she replies.
“Recess is a great opportunity to go and talk to lots of groups in the constituency. When I talk about my job, I remind myself of all the great interesting things and the challenges. Certainly, the select committee has been absolutely fantastic and it’s been great to have that as something to really focus on productively in the last year.”
For all the bad blood of recent times, Morgan believes it is “definitely possible” for the mutineers and the Brexit hardliners to reconcile after Brexit – but it will require some conciliation and a cooling of language.
“People have got to want to stay. It’s going to require compromise. Brexit has always been about compromise on all sides. Before I came into politics, I’m a lawyer negotiating M&A deals and all the rest of it. I knew right from July 2016 that Brexit would be about compromises. We can see the government has finally got there, but the question is going to be whether the really hard Brexiteers are prepared to compromise.”