In the midst of the EU referendum frenzy I think it is important to set out two reasons why, whichever side wins next Thursday, the Conservative Party needs to act stoically. Like many others, I feel passionately and overwhelmingly for one side, but at times like this we all need to take a step back and consider things. If there must be changes after either a Remain or Leave victory next Thursday, they should be done quickly and then we should move on together.
Policy will still need fixing on June 24th whoever wins
The first reason is that whatever people think about Europe, there are many other equally important issues.
Take, for example, the issue of home ownership and housing. Whenever I spoke to our MPs, either before or when I was working in Number Ten, they usually supported home ownership. Thatcherites loved the spread of self-reliance and wealth. One Nation Tories loved the greater dispersion of opportunity and stability. Cynics loved the fact that home owners voted for us.
Home ownership needs sufficient homes built to flourish. We are currently building 145,000 homes a year. Despite this being the highest number this decade, it is at least 100,000 below what we need. It is also not increasing – the number of new homes started is reasonably stagnant. It might be true there is a house price bubble, but rents (which are much less frothy) are rising well ahead of inflation and wages, from 2.6 per cent to 4 per cent depending on what index you look at.
Of course, fewer migrants need fewer homes. So you might think Brexit would automatically fix this. But actually it is more complex than that. The structure of the UK development industry requires rising land prices (which the current low inflation environment makes worse) and encourages developers to build slowly (though they do not ‘land bank’ in the conventional sense).
Developers take on debt to purchase land upfront and so they need land prices to rise over the period they are building – so at the end the land is not worth less than what they paid for it. And land prices only rise if supply is insufficient to meet demand. So if immigration fell, over time housing supply would also fall to a new equilibrium – still below demand. The referendum will not fix this.
And this basic core issue in housing is just one part of the puzzle: many other issues such as design and infrastructure also remain. The Communities Department needs to stop trying to reorganise the shires into unhelpful three-tier sub-regional arrangements, and focus more on the housing crisis. Brandon Lewis is ready to take action. Yet if the party is at open war, no Minister will be able to take the measures necessary to solve this issue or any other issue.
On such issues as housing, politicians from both sides of the party in the referendum are united on the need for action. Through internal debate within our party, I am optimistic we can generally get to the right answer. But this means we need to be prepared to listen to each other and debate, not just see the losing side sulk for the next few years.
Housing is just one of many issues that we as a party need to tackle over the next few years. Europe is not the be all and end all. The voters will never forgive us if we think that is the case.
The tide of history washes away temporary defeats
The other key reason not to fight is that if your side loses, but you are in the right, it will be only be a temporary defeat. If Leave win, and over the next two years the EU can genuinely reform itself, while the UK struggles to carve new trading deals, a reformed EU will see the UK seeking to rejoin. If Remain win, and there is an ongoing Eurozone and refugee crisis resulting in yet more unwanted EU centralisation, the pressure for another vote will be unstoppable.
I do not believe the British people are stupid enough to either tolerate a genuinely federal EU, or stagnant living standards as Europe surges ahead. So if your side loses, but it is proved right by the ebb and flow of events, you will find that the narrow margin on June 23rd is not enough to hold back change over the next decade or so.
Whichever choice we make will only succeed if it goes with the tides of history. So once the British people have cast their votes we must accept their verdict, see where the tide takes us, and move on to other issues. It will be up to both sides of the party to come together, disown any extremists who seek to wreck the party in the aftermath of their loss, and get on with the business of governing.
And with that thought, enjoy the last week of campaigning!
PS: Some additional thought on ‘experts’.
I have enjoyed the commentariat discussing the shocking disdain shown for “experts” by voters in the past couple of weeks, and attempts to elide the ‘expertise’ of macroeconomists and the political commentariat with groups such as pilots or doctors, demanding that political and economic ‘expert’ pronouncements are treated with more respect.
Of course, if such experts had the same success rate as airline pilots or doctors they might receive more respect – whereas if, for example, pilots or doctors had the same success rate as such ‘experts’ I think most of us would still travel overseas via boat and use the local herbalist instead…