Editorial Comment and Conor Burns:
Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor should heed Boris Johnson’s inspiring article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. The lesson is that we need more than merely a technocratic plan for leaving the European Union. We need a vision for economic and social renewal brought about by allying withdrawal with dramatic changes to domestic policy. For Great Britain to flourish outside the EU, it needs to be great in every sense. We need to think big. The future is global, technologically driven and all about competitiveness and knowledge. We will be less and less dependent on European markets as the years go by. Getting the basics right – tax reform, infrastructure, education, housing and an embrace of free trade – matters much more than the details of our relationship with the EU post-Brexit.
That’s why Mr Johnson really did voters a public service by writing what he did. There is a risk that Brexit becomes defined by the negotiations in Brussels, by technical position papers and by the language of risk avoidance. Again, all these things are important, and in recent weeks the Prime Minister’s steady hand has helped steer the Withdrawal Bill on its way through Parliament. But politics is as much about persuasion as delivery, and Mr Johnson’s words stand out for their confidence in the Brexit project. There is no shortage of negativity in the media: hardened Remainers seem to enjoy easy and often disproportionate access to TV cameras.
This week, Mrs May enters the spotlight. She will deliver a speech in Florence laying out how the negotiations have gone thus far and what she hopes will happen next. This is her big chance to reset the Goverment’s approach to Brexit and especially its tone. She needs to involve Mr Johnson, Michael Gove, Priti Patel and others. We need to hear far more enthusiasm and far more optimism. We also need the seeds of a new economic policy to be fleshed out ahead of the Budget, geared towards supporting Brexit and kickstarting the economy. Mr Johnson quoted Peter Mandelson’s estimation that EU regulation costs us 4 per cent of GDP; Gordon Brown, wrote the Foreign Secretary, once put it at 7 per cent. Either way, the Tories should be talking about scrapping as many of these rules as possible – even if in some cases this means a bigger rupture with the single market and its obsession with regulatory equivalence than the soft Brexiteers within government would prefer.
Britain needs action on housing: build more homes and cut the costs of moving by reducing or, better still, abolishing stamp duty. It needs to vastly improve further education: transfer students from pointless courses to world-class vocational schemes. It desperately requires better infrastructure. Perhaps most intriguingly, Mr Johnson argued that bad tax policy stifles investment, quoting Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, as calculating that reform could raise output by around 20 per cent. This is a crucial area. Britain’s tax system is utterly broken, horribly complex and extremely costly. A well conducted and revolutionary tax reform, based upon simplification and a reduction in marginal tax rates, would boost the economy far more than even the best of trade deals with the EU. It would certainly more than cancel out the hit from any protectionist moves by the EU.
Brussels has accentuated the UK’s problems down the years, but, as Mr Johnson points out, once we leave we will no longer have the EU as an excuse. This means Philip Hammond finds himself in an unusually important position. The decisions he takes will decide where Britain goes and how fast.
Mrs May’s speech in Florence should capture some of Mr Johnson’s sense of possibility. Britain is a rich, growing nation with nuclear capabilities, a permanent seat at the United Nations, wide cultural reach, a financial sector second to none, an international language, history that turns others green with envy and, with the right sense of visionary leadership, the potential to make this century one of its greatest as a fully independent country.
Mrs May’s message to the Europeans should be: Britain is an outward-looking country. We respect Europe, we want to be friends with Europe, we love European culture and wish to remain firm allies. Ultimately, however, the very point of Brexit is to put power into the hands of the British people – and anything the EU throws at us will be more than compensated for by the rejuvenation of our economy, our democracy and our national spirit.
‘There is no shortage of negativity: hardened Remainers seem to enjoy easy access to TV cameras’
‘Ultimately, the very point of Brexit is to put power into the hands of the British people’