Last week’s Budget was not without merit, measures to support home ownership and further funding for Brexit contingency planning are welcome, but it failed to deliver on our Party’s core belief in one-nation conservatism, says John Baron MP.

There was much to like in last week’s Budget. Rather unusually for a post-election Budget, and much to its credit, it gave rather than took. However, in some respects the Budget could have achieved much more, particularly in furthering the ‘One-Nation’ agenda. Funding such initiatives would also have required some bold thinking.

The Budget’s strong focus on housing was particularly welcome. The abolition of stamp duty for 80 per cent of first-time buyers, together with a similar scheme for London buyers, will help many get their feet on the housing ladder. It is similarly good news that significant support – £44 billion – will be made available in coming years to help meet the target of 300,000 new homes each year. Coupled with pressure on developers to use their ‘land banks’, these measures should start to alleviate our acute problems of falling home ownership and affordability – important for Conservatives as the party of the ‘property owning democracy’.

On the Brexit front, the decision to set aside a further £3 billion towards contingency planning for a ‘no deal’ option is also welcome. This is a sensible precaution should it turn out that we trade with the EU on the same basis as most other countries, courtesy of World Trade Organisation rules. It will ensure we are not left adrift as we were after the EU referendum, because of the Government’s decision to prevent the civil service from working on the implications of a Leave vote.

However, there are some areas where the Chancellor could have been more forthcoming. As a Party we need to remember that we are the party of ‘One Nation’ or we are nothing. At the General Election, we chose the wrong messages. We need to remind people that sound finances and economics are a means to an end, not the end itself. Whilst there is still further to go, we can be proud of our achievements in reducing unemployment, poverty, and income inequality. Our problem is one of public perception, perhaps borne of necessity given every post-war Labour government has ended in an economic and financial shambles.

Accordingly, the increase in the Personal Allowance should have been accelerated still further. It remains a Conservative pledge to raise the threshold to £12,500 by 2020, but we should achieve this sooner. This would give a welcome boost in take-home pay to millions of people, especially the less well-off. The Chancellor should have also further cut small business corporation tax. This tax does not yield much, but a reduction would help to encourage enterprise whilst further reducing unemployment.

In addition, we should have done more around student finance. This emerged as almost the defining issue of the 2017 General Election campaign – even if Labour has since rather cynically distanced itself from its pledge to cancel student debts. Whilst it is good news that the Government has frozen tuition fees and raised the repayment threshold, it has not yet committed to reducing interest rates on student loans. Hopefully the forthcoming review into student finance will put this right.

One very notable absence from the Budget, especially from a former Secretary of State for Defence, was any mention of the Armed Forces. Recent budget cuts and ill-judged defence reforms have resulted in reduced manpower across all three services together with serious capability gaps – reports suggest the Royal Navy may even struggle to find enough sailors to crew our new aircraft carriers, we still lack a maritime patrol aircraft, and the Army struggles to reach its recruitment targets. A strong defence can deter aggressors, and be a cost saving in the long term.

Many of the same criticisms can be levelled at funding for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – it is much below what is required, especially as diplomacy assumes an even greater importance as we leave the European Union and develop and strengthen links with the wider world. A well-informed foreign policy process increases the likelihood of better outcomes.

These measures will require extra funding, but this should not come from raising taxes. In the first instance, savings from leaving the European Union could be brought forward – amounting to a net figure of around £10 billion per annum over the long term – notwithstanding any financial arrangements resulting from the EU negotiations. Secondly, the High Speed Two rail link should be cancelled. This is a vastly expensive project, with fast-rising costs, made redundant by the widespread use of reliable and secure mobile data networks which permit working whilst travelling.

Understandably, Westminster and the media are presently consumed by the Brexit negotiations. However, focus will return to such bread-and-butter issues as the economy, health and education as the next General Election approaches. For further improvements in these areas to be visible in time, budgets now need to take the bold measures necessary – we cannot afford to miss opportunities.

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