Boris Johnson has made a promising start as Prime Minister. John Baron MP sets out what he argues should be key priorities for the Prime Minister on the road ahead.
It seems æons ago that Theresa May made her speech outside No 10 announcing her decision to step down as leader of the Conservative Party, ushering in the leadership election we have seen unfold over the last few months. In offering my congratulations to Boris Johnson for winning the contest, here are my suggestions for what his priorities should be for the new government.
Fairly obviously, Brexit will be the Government’s most pressing agenda item. I very much welcome that the Prime Minister has announced we will leave by the end of October, with or without a deal. With a fresh mandate from the Parliamentary party and the membership in the country, all efforts must be bent towards this objective – and the early signs are good.
I am pleased the Prime Minister understands that we need a fresh approach leading to a better deal with the EU. The fundamental weakness of Theresa May’s Government was that Brexit was treated as a damage-limitation exercise, rather than a set of positive opportunities to reset our relationship, both with the EU and with other countries.
Theresa May’s dealings with the EU were always hamstrung because they never believed she was prepared to walk away without a deal. This neutered the UK’s negotiating position, and the current draft of the Withdrawal Agreement is the confirmation of this. The new Prime Minister has learnt the lessons of this approach, and is taking with a pinch of salt the chorus of voices who argue against leaving on WTO terms. These almost always stem from those who forecast doom and disaster if we did not join the Euro, and who warned of similarly dire consequences by December 2016 if we merely voted to leave the EU.
Economic reality has shown that investment and jobs is more about comparative advantage than WTO tariffs. Our more competitive corporation tax régime and flexible and highly-qualified labour market, along with other factors such as the English language, financial expertise, a world-class legal service, and cutting-edge university research are the key determinants for international investment – not 3-5% average WTO tariffs. This is why, despite all the talk that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, the economy has done well and inward investment has remained buoyant since the referendum – ‘despite Brexit’.
Boris Johnson is also not forgetting other priorities in Government. The economy is doing well, but continuing to cut corporation tax must remain top of the business agenda, to ensure the UK remains one of the world’s best best places to do business. Jeremy Hunt had the laudable aim of at least matching the Irish corporation tax rate, which the new Prime Minister should implement.
The new Prime Minister should keep raising the tax-free Personal Allowance threshold, enabling people to keep a larger share of their earnings, and taking millions more of the lowest-paid out of income tax altogether. In addition, the National Living Wage should increase substantially, to ensure that those on low pay are properly rewarded for their work through their pay packets. These are thoroughly ‘One Nation’ Conservative policies which disproportionally benefit those on low incomes.
The new Prime Minister should commit to meaningful increases to the defence budget, where the cuts under the Coalition Government have inflicted real damage both to our Armed Forces’ manpower and capabilities. The recent seizure of the Stena Impero serves to remind us that we have taken freedom of navigation on the world’s sea-lanes for granted, and are forgetting the value of a blue-water navy ready to take action when required to ensure that shipping lanes remain open – vital for a country where 95% of our goods arrive by sea. A Royal Navy of only 19 surface ships (fewer in practice, once repairs and refits are factored in) does not have the global reach to ensure this, and restoring our Armed Forces should be an early priority for the new Prime Minister.
Beefing up our hard power must go hand-in-hand with boosting our soft power capabilities. As confirmed by various recent reports, the UK is a soft power superpower, leading the global rankings for strength and depth of its soft power offering. This is in no small part because our key soft power institutions, such as the BBC World Service and the British Council. Both have an extraordinary global reach – over the past year, the latter estimates it has engaged with nearly 800 million people worldwide in some form or other. Both organisations have benefitted from time-limited grants, and putting them on a dependable financial footing would reap dividends in the medium- to long-term.
Finally, there should be a concerted move away from ‘process targets’ in favour of a much greater commitment to good outcomes – which is really what matters most to patients and their families. The new Prime Minister would do well to stick to the undertakings in the NHS’ Long Term Plan to put one-year cancer survival rates at the heart of the NHS. This would be a real incentive for the NHS to up its game on the early detection of cancer, and according to the Department of Health’s own figures could save literally thousands of lives each year. When I raised this with the Prime Minister in his Commons statement, I was pleased with his answer that his Government will remain committed to this course.
Whether or not Boris Johnson follows these suggestions, it is fair to say that he has made a cracking start to his premiership. A fresh and diverse Cabinet – in the Commons I applauded the fact that the four holders of the Great Offices of State are all the descendants of immigrants – is ready to take on the challenge of Government. His early policies of 20,000 more Police on our streets, resolving Social Care, an increase in per-pupil funding, and rolling out full-fibre broadband, will directly help my constituents. Parliament returns in September, but I trust the Prime Minister will use the long summer recess to get his agenda moving.