Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
I suspect officials in the Treasury breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Chancellor announced in March 2017 that that would be the last Spring Budget and that he was moving to one Budget a year. Each ‘fiscal event’ (as Budgets are called inside Government) is a huge undertaking and diverts attention in the Treasury and in departments across Whitehall away from the day-to-day business of Government.
The briefing ahead of tomorrow suggests that Philip Hammond is determined that this Spring Statement really should be just that – a short statement commenting on the latest numbers from the Office of Budget Responsibility and with no fiscal changes announced at all.
Saturday’s press suggested that there might be a review of single-use plastics, whilst the Treasury and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government are locked in an argument about plans to fully fund English lessons for migrants as part of the Government’s long overdue response to the Casey Review.
If plastic cups versus English lessons is being weighed up in 11 Downing Street, then that would be both disappointing and a missed opportunity.
We cannot wait until 29th March 2019 to start re-defining in the country’s eyes what this Conservative Government is about. Every set-piece occasion, such as the Spring Statement, which doesn’t do that is a missed opportunity. And up against Brexit and Corbyn we need those opportunities more than ever at the moment.
We also need to make the most of the fact that, after a lot of hard work, day-to-day spending has been brought into balance. This is a significant achievement and we need to remind people why this matters – because it is unfair to put the burden of paying for our spending on to the next generation, and wrong to spend more on debt interest than, for example, our schools.
And we need to draw a very clear contrast with the ‘turn the spending taps on’ attitude of the Labour leadership.
Some are arguing that this heralds the ‘end of austerity’ and that we can now relax our fiscal discipline. I would caution against this. There may be spending decisions which are now easier to take – such as finding more money where recruitment is becoming a real problem such as for nurses and teachers, and in financially overstretched areas such as social care, children’s social services and mental health – but if we relax too much then we undermine our criticism of the last Labour Government for not ‘fixing the roof while the sun shines’.
We still have a significant national debt, an ageing population, a growing school population, a need to re-train many of our workforces and the unknowns of Brexit to pay for, including likely major investment in our borders.
In a speech I gave last week I argued that the Conservative Party needs to be clearer about our values and our mission. I suggested that our mission is that the Conservative Party wants to give everyone the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations, to tackle injustices and imbalances of power and to build a better society.
The Spring Statement provides a perfect opportunity to emphasise and reinforce all of this. And, whilst I think tackling single use plastic is important (many of us are doing our bit with reusable coffee cups this Lent) and Michael Gove has done a great job of moving our narrative on the environment forward significantly I’d argue that providing enough money for language classes is one of the biggest things we can do to build a cohesive society fits within our mission to change Britain.