BACK in 2009, I was a Shadow Treasury Minister and I remember being part of a key discussion that the team had on whether the Conservative Party was really confronting the real challenges the UK economy faced – that Britain was living beyond its means and that because of that, we had to be frank and talk about how our debt had become unsustainable.
At the time, the Conservative Party was doing well in the polls. Gordon Brown, as Labour’s Prime Minister, was unpopular and rising unemployment had damaged Labour’s message on economic competence. We looked on course to win the next election. Some argued it was better not to do anything that might risk changing that.
But our discussion had a clear conclusion. Even though the message about debt and living within our means made winning the next election harder, it was better to be truthful with voters about the economy. It was better to be honest about what we’d have to do as an incoming government to rescue the nation’s finances and avoid bankruptcy.
The week after that meeting and after we’d set that out in public, I was in Parliament when a Labour MP stopped me to cheerfully say he was sure we’d just committed political suicide. I remember saying I disagreed, that being economically responsible meant being honest. That his was the party with the problem because they weren’t being honest. And that was right. In 2010, Labour lost because voters prefer honesty even if it means hard truths.
I think there’s a need for hard truths now. The biggest one is that we know Brexit will damage the economy in the short term, even if people think there will be benefits later on. But if we know that, then we must have a plan to deal with that downturn, to cushion the people and the communities most affected by it. And it needs to be a plan that goes well beyond just assisting various industries to operationally transition from the old system to a new one.
Back in February, MPs were able to go the Treasury to look at their analysis on Brexit and its economic impact. The analysis I saw showed that a basic free trade deal with the EU means that Yorkshire as a region has a drop in GDP of nearly five per cent over the next 15 years. Some might say the Treasury are pessimistic, but I’d rather not take the chance. When we hear the Chancellor’s Budget Statement in 10 days time, I’ll want to see a clear plan. Those communities affected deserve nothing less.
And we need something that goes beyond even that. The Chancellor must provide a plan that not only tackles any short and medium term Brexit downturn, but also sets out a long term proposal to level up broader opportunities for more young people across Britain including in Yorkshire.
That’s because whatever happens in the coming months on Brexit, unequal access to opportunity will still be the biggest problem facing Britain. The fact is that talent is spread evenly but opportunity isn’t.
I want to see the most ambitious plan on opportunity that this country has ever had. One which gives clear guarantees to people, on a par with the ambition of creating the NHS, or the welfare system. I think only a Conservative government can do this because we’ve always been the party that has understood the inextricable line between effort and reward. The Budget is a chance to set out that bigger picture and agenda.
At Conservative Party conference earlier this month, I said that the Treasury should design tax policy to drive social mobility and opportunity. More incentives for companies that bring opportunity to people and communities that don’t have it, not as an afterthought but as a guiding principle. The core mission of driving opportunity and social mobility should be at the heart of every single government department’s thinking and delivery.
There are too many communities, including here in Yorkshire, who already feel that opportunity is something that happens to other people in other places. They and their families feel they are left behind. They might want a stake in our country, but they just can’t get it. That’s unacceptable – not enough opportunity for not enough people is everyone’s problem.
Shying away from tough challenges never does people any favours. Doing that in the 1970s gave the 1980s a legacy economy and businesses that too often not only had undemocratic, over-powerful unions but had suffered from years of bad management as well. Business leaders, unions and politicians may have had good intentions by preferring to shield people from the effects of poor productivity, but in the end it simply led to far worse job losses. Because tomorrow always comes. It did for my dad and thousands of British Steel workers.
I’m not arguing against Brexit. But I don’t agree that any economic hit after Brexit should be paid by those least able to pay. And as a country, as a Parliament, we should have the courage to tackle the bigger challenges beyond Brexit. People deserve honesty. And most of all they deserve a post-Brexit plan to turbocharge opportunity where it’s most needed. This month’s Budget Statement has to be a moment when that plan begins to be set out.
Justine Greening is a Conservative MP. Born in Rotherham, she was Education Secretary until earlier this year.