Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Stanley Crook Primary School, Crook, Co. Durham
Nothing makes you reflect more on the “long-term” than a visit to a primary school. It will be almost 20 years before some of my youngest constituents are able to cast a ballot in a general election. If their parents continue to vote for me, I’ll be in my mid 50s and, like Ronald Regan, generously avoiding making light of my “opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
It is those who are too young to vote, but who will end up paying for the decisions that are made, that the Chancellor needs to keep in his mind tomorrow. With debt to GDP close to 100 per cent following the global pandemic – levels not seen since the early 1960s – it is clear spending must be kept under control.
We don’t want to burden those future generations with costs not due to a global pandemic, but our inability to get off “easy cash” when the worst has passed. Furthermore, we need to be careful because just a one per cent rise in interest rates on our national debt will lead to a £25 billion increase in the cost of servicing it. While the UK is better placed than some, with long-term maturing debt predominant, around a third of our debt in index-linked, meaning that the rise is automatic.
To put that in context, in spending terms that’s more than half the defence budget. In tax terms, that’s increasing the basic rate of income tax from 20 per cent to over 24 per cent. In a couple of years we don’t want to be having to look at massive spending cuts and tax rises just to keep in balance. That’s why it is so important that the Chancellor returns to traditional Conservative economics of fiscal responsibility and getting both borrowing and debt down so that, faced with a future pandemic, war or crisis, we are in a position to be able to respond.
Watching the New Labour documentary recently, I was struck by the mistakes made that led to their inability to respond when the 2008/9 financial crisis hit. They’d borrowed hugely during the good times and the UK paid a very significant premium on its debt compared to other European and major global powers.
As Conservatives, financial responsibility must be our watch-words. It’s what the public expect. We can leave Labour to veer between massive, unfunded spending promises one day to attempts at eye catching tax cuts the next. Our job is to be solid, sober and sensible.
There is one area where the Chancellor does need to do considered spending however. That is to push investment into things that raise productivity and truly level up the country, creating self-sustaining support rather than permanently reliant on hand-outs from central Government.
Where he does invest, the Chancellor needs to do so to build long-term viability. If the least productive parts of the country were as productive as the most productive, we wouldn’t be facing a budget deficit at all. Upskilling the workforce so that the third of people who don’t have an A Level or equivalent can access one is essential. More essential still is that we reduce the number of young people leaving education without one in the first place.
The second way of improving productivity is to ensure that people can access the jobs and opportunities available to them. Any big transport schemes need a close eye on them to ensure that they’re really going to deliver “levelling up” opportunity – and therefore productivity. New buses and new train networks need to be there to provide connectivity, expand real pinch points in capacity, not to service the vanity or whims of officials in Whitehall.
I’m not against the Chancellor cutting a bit of a dash where he can – on mine and others long fought campaign to reform alcohol duty for example to give draught beer a cut in price. Fingers crossed. But the basis of his budget needs to be aimed at the long-term health of our economy and the prospects for the next generation.
People vote for the future; not what you did but what you’re going to do. But they only have the past to rely on to guide them in that. The one rock solid anchor Conservatives need above everything is fiscal credibility, looking to the long-term interests of the country. I for one hope that Rishi puts that front and centre tomorrow – it is the foundation on which we build levelling up and good jobs from improving productivity and opportunity which it brings.