Leigh Higgins is Regional Chairman for the East Midlands and Deputy Leader of Melton Borough Council.
In the East Midlands region, an area that voted largely to leave the EU, many grassroots members and Party officers got in touch about how they felt on the Chequers plan. I do not feel it is unreasonable to say that the majority in our region were unconvinced of the proposals, but wanted to know more about what they actually mean and the impact that they would have.
Those of you who are activists or elected politicians will know better than anyone else the importance of canvassing opinion and not being afraid of what we get back. This is why I firmly believe that hosting Association Chairmen and senior officers on calls or at Number Ten by the Party Chairman and by the Prime Minister was a valuable exercise for all sides and indeed for our Party.
Many people, inside and outside of the Party, have said to me that we seem to be talking more about technical language and in legalese. One Association Chairman said that “we sound like a bunch of defence barristers trying to confuse the jury not to convince it” – and I have some sympathy with that.
Conservative members and the public want us to “get on with it”, and to provide what we promised in our manifesto. Conservatives are in the strongest position to deliver Brexit; yet we have more to lose should we not meet the public expectations. However, we should also set the tone of what the public can expect of Brexit from the Conservatives.
We need to start to talk the language of leaving the EU, and assess what this would look like for our residents, their communities and our country. Conservative Party members, and indeed members of the public, are not just focussed on our relationship with the EU but with the rest of the world, too; this is the part we sometimes miss.
An example of this would be Freedom of Movement. We are committed that it will end, but we are not shutting ourselves off from the world. We will want a skills-based immigration system that meets our needs. It could mean that we welcome more doctors and nurses to relieve pressure at local surgeries, so that people can access a GP quicker.
However, it will mean, by definition, that we have tighter restrictions on unskilled workers. But these could work even better by devolving, or at least consulting, local councils on what their areas’ skills needs are. If we allow local councillors, who hear acutely what labour requirements local businesses need while also recognising the pressures on services and housing, then immigration will have a better positive relationship with the community that it impacts..
Business rate growth will also provide an incentive to be positive on the local needs. It will mean not only taking back control of national immigration policy but, crucially, local communities taking control of supporting their own workforce requirements (i.e. farming, manufacturing, construction ,etc).
Equally it could mean when we sign new trade agreements with Canada, Australia or the US that jobs in those markets are open to British people.
Having trade agreements with the outside world will brings huge opportunity for us. Free trade tends to help consumers access goods and services at a lower price. What will change look like for the price of food and goods in our shops? Will we see lower prices, and in effect a reduction to the cost of living for people? We have to be explicit, and explain what it will mean.
We want a deal with the EU, but not at any price. And if we end up with a “No Deal” situation in which EU and WTO tariffs come in, then how will Government support our businesses? The Government has fiscal policy at its disposal, and we may need to be radical about how we use such a powerful tool in the Government’s armoury: cutting tax rates can see a higher tax take. The UK will also collect its own tariffs from EU imports. We would be free to reduce taxes on business to offset such tariffs – for example, employer NI rates or corporation taxes, so businesses see as frictionless tax change as possible. Free trade Britain will support jobs, and may even suck in investment from the rest of Europe – which leads to my final point: the voters.
The tax burden is recognised at being its highest for decades namely due to Labour completely trashing the public finances. It should not be understated how Conservatives, nationally and locally, have worked on tackling the deficit. However, in any transition period post-March 2019 we may want to look at personal taxation to support families with the cost of living, in order to keep the economy growing.
While we have done a lot for the lowest earners we may want to consider raising the rate at which national insurance starts to target workers rather than including people with income; or, otherwise, cutting the basic rate of income tax while freezing the threshold at £12,500 to widen the base. On the 40p band, we should strongly look at increasing the threshold, which has been pulling in more and more people it was never intended for, removing their incentive to earn more or invest back into their businesses and grow the economy (which in the 1980s we as Conservatives recognised). As the economy grows the deficit, as a percentage of GDP, falls – all things being equal.
By putting more money in the pockets of people and UK businesses, as we leave the EU and enter a new economic relationship with the world, we can ensure that, as the UK voted Leave to take back control, we as Conservatives are ensuring that people are taking back control themselves.
If we are open and transparent, and talk the language of leaving, and what the future may look like, I am certain people will trust the Conservatives to deliver it.