Robert Colvile is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.
Over the past few months, we’ve been bombarded with predictions about the consequences of “No Deal” – most ranging from the alarming to the apocalyptic.
Yet most of these analyses have focused either on the very short term or the very long: on the immediate potential for disruption at Calais and Dover, or the impact on GDP in a decade’s time.
There has, by contrast, been much less analysis of what the Government can and should do in the immediate wake of No Deal to stabilise, and ultimately strengthen, the wider economy – to maintain consumer confidence, safeguard business investment, and prevent the supply shock of No Deal turning into a demand shock, with far more debilitating consequences.
It’s true that MPs may well vote on Wednesday to “take No Deal off the table”. But they will in practice be doing no such thing. Until a deal is actually signed and sealed, No Deal will remain a possibility – unless we decide to abandon Brexit altogether, with all the calamitous consequences for our democracy, self-respect and standing in the world that would entail.
Even if Parliament delays our departure, it is unlikely the EU will permit endless extensions of Article 50 while the British political class reaches consensus among itself.
So it would be positively negligent not to think about, and prepare for, No Deal. Hence our new Centre for Policy Studies report – A Budget for No Deal. It sets out the decisions that we believe should be taken by the Chancellor, in the wake of a no-deal departure, to safeguard the economy and promote growth.
Safeguarding the economy
In that scenario, there will obviously be a major role to play for monetary policy.
What most people miss about the most apocalyptic No Deal forecasts is that they assume that the Bank of England will not respond. The ultra-pessimistic “disorderly” exit scenario devised by the Bank to stress-test the financial sector – which featured GDP plummeting by 8 per cent, unemployment rising to 7.5 per cent, and inflation hitting 6.5 per cent – actually involved tightening rather than loosening monetary policy: an act of kamikaze economics.
Given that the Bank acted to stabilise the economy in the wake of the original vote to Leave, it is safe to assume it would do the same after No Deall. But the Chancellor will also need to take decisive action in terms of fiscal policy, to maintain confidence and create the most attractive possible economic environment.
So what should he do?
In our view, the key task after No Deal is to limit the impact of any supply shock – the sudden change in how we trade and with whom – and in particular to prevent it from turning into a demand shock, in which a falling pound drives up prices and inflation, and confidence among consumers and businesses falls alongside their willingness to spend. That means coming up with ways to blunt the impact of the most widely predicted economic dangers.
Thanks to the Government’s focus on bringing down the deficit, the public finances are in remarkably good order. We suggest that this leaves room for a stimulus of £44 billion, amounting to an extra 2 per cent of GDP, to keep the economy moving without moving the deficit back into the danger zone. (Our own proposals only come to £35 billion, leaving significant cash to deploy towards a further stimulus, or other post-no-deal firefighting.)
But where should the money go?
We argue that there should be three priorities. First, supporting consumer spending – making sure voters feel they have money in their pockets even if prices rise. Second, incentivising business investment – making sure companies, and especially small and family firms, feel like they’ve got a reason to hire and invest. Third, keeping Britain open – cutting tariffs and attracting talent and trade.
Supporting consumer spending
To ensure voters have a buffer against rising prices, and feel able to keep spending, we would urge the Government to give every worker a £465 tax cut by implementing the Universal Working Income. Our head of tax, Tom Clougherty, explained the idea on ConservativeHome back in November – raising the National Insurance threshold to match the income tax allowance. This would not only compensate for any rise in prices, but act as an incentive to everyone to work.
We also need to help those who aren’t working – it would be callous, and politically disastrous, to do otherwise. That’s why we suggest ending the benefits freeze a year early, topping up the state pension, and freezing council tax. (We also argue that a temporary VAT cut, deployed in the wake of the financial crisis, would be a worse and more expensive solution – not least since many of the products most vulnerable to any post-Brexit price rises are VAT-exempt.)
Britain’s economy has defied many of the gloomy pre-Brexit predictions. But the slowdown in business investment has certainly been a drag on growth. After No Deal, we need to make sure we do everything we can to keep firms here and attract new ones – and make it as easy as possible to hire and invest.
The most obvious move is to bring forward the scheduled cut in corporation tax to 17 per cent. A more lasting change would be to adopt “full expensing” – effectively, to allow companies to write off all investment in plant and machinery against tax. All the evidence is that this would have a galvanising effect on growth.
Small and family businesses, especially exporters, are the most vulnerable to No Deal shocks – but also the most important as an engine of job creation. So we suggest a temporary 25 per cent cut in both business rates, that perennial bugbear, and employers’ National Insurance Contributions.
But it’s not just about money. We need to make it clear to businesses that the business environment will be as friendly as possible. That means imposing an 18-month moratorium on any new regulations that increase the business burden – and pausing “Making Tax Digital”, the latest headache imposed on small firms by HMRC.
It also means an urgent review of existing regulation, especially that imposed by Europe, and listening to businesses large and small about what is causing the most problems. The think tank Open Europe has outlined “politically feasible” deregulation that could save firms nearly £13 billion a year post-Brexit, or 0.6 per cent of GDP.
The Government should also bring forward cost-effective infrastructure projects – those small-scale, easily deliverable projects that offer maximum bang for its buck – and support housebuilding and construction, not least because we desperately need the homes anyway.
Keeping Britain open
The early reports on the Government’s customs plans in the event of No Deal are along exactly the right lines – a bold ambition to reduce or eliminate tariffs in order that consumers feel the benefits. Of course, there will be sectors and regions, such as agriculture, where immediate unilateral reduction would cause significant damage – so they need to be supported as we move towards a zero-tariff norm.
To keep things moving at the border, we should wave through low-risk imports from the EU. But we should also invest in developing the most efficient customs infrastructure in the world, and establish systems to help our firms export (especially SMEs).
We should also rapidly establish a new generation of free ports – a brilliant post-Brexit project first outlined by Rishi Sunak MP for the CPS.
We should make it far easier for the highest-skilled workers to come to the UK. And we should copy the Netherlands by offering the best workers, and the best firms, significant tax breaks if they relocate to the UK.
Making the best of Brexit
In a recent ComRes survey, the public agreed by 65 per cent to 13 per cent that “After Brexit, the UK should position itself as the lowest-tax, business-friendliest country in Europe, focused on building strong international trade links”. This was backed not just by Leave voters but by Remain voters, Labour voters, and across all age groups, regions, and class statuses.
The ideas outlined here fit that brief – and there are plenty more in the paper itself. Many of them, we believe, are good things to do whatever the eventual form of Brexit.
Yes, our report is a plan for No Deal. But it is one that involves doubling down on the best and most entrepreneurial aspects of the British economy. Whatever the nature of the final Brexit outcome, it is the extent to which we embrace those values that will determine whether we succeed or fail.