Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
Although all eyes were on the Prime Minister’s speech at the Conference last week I’d argue that it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who had the greatest challenge. Philip Hammond’s speech had to set out the Conservative position on the economy, and respond to Labour’s economic announcements at their conference.
But he couldn’t make any truly significant announcements, given both the impending Budget and the final stages of the Brexit negotiations. It also didn’t help that Theresa May wanted to announce a continuing freeze on fuel duty and signal a return to higher rates of public spending.
As I argued in a speech in March, and as some of my fellow MPs, such as George Freeman and Nick Boles, have both said, the Conservatives can’t wait for Brexit to happen before turning our attention to the rest of our policy agenda. It continues to be a real problem that the levels of trust between Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street are so low. This is because it is the Treasury which should be leading the way for the Government to unveil its next set of plans to ensure that our economy is working for everyone – and setting out how we use Brexit to build a better society for our fellow citizens.
You don’t have to agree with every word of the recent IPPR Economic Justice Commission to know that it is on to something. We cannot secure growth in the 21st century by following a 20th century model. As the IPPR Commission puts it in their interim report “The British economy today is not generating rising prosperity for a majority of the population.” What is the Conservative Party’s mission in the early 21st century? Surely it must be to give everyone the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations, to tackle injustices and imbalances of power and to build a better society.
Having both worked in the Treasury as a Minister, and now from my vantage point as the Treasury Select Committee’s chair, I see the opportunity that the department has to shape and support efforts across government to demonstrate our values, start the process of flourishing and address some of the problems set out above.
For example, having a couple of hundred pounds in savings would, for tens of thousands of households, make an enormous difference to their financial security. How can our economic policy help to make that a reality? What action can we take to tackle the poverty premium, whereby the poorer you are, the more you pay for essential services because poorer people are, for example, more likely to be on pre-paid meters? You can even pay more to access your own cash, because pay-to-use ATMs are more likely to be situated in disadvantaged areas. Are we satisfied with that?
In his November 2017 Budget, the Chancellor announced the National Retraining Scheme. We’ve also seen the Government’s Industrial Strategy published. The question is: how do these and other initiatives work together? And how are they translated into policies which make a real difference to people’s lives, particularly those whose workplaces are being rapidly transformed through automation and competition from abroad? How are employers being encouraged to invest in building a resilient workforce and how are school pupils, and their parents, being excited about, and being prepared to encounter, the industries of the future as identified in the Industrial Strategy?
How do we work with businesses to ensure that they invest not just in their facilities, through capital schemes such as enterprise zones and business rates relief, but in their people by encouraging apprenticeships at all ages; long-term employment, compassionate HR and a focus on health and wellbeing at work? (After all, we are all going to be spending much longer working this century than people did in the last). It won’t be enough in 2022 for the Conservative Party to say that we delivered Brexit. As we saw last year, Brexit did not drive the election campaign – even then.
But a refreshed look at how our economy is working for everyone, a concerted One Nation plan to build a better society and demonstrate that our Conservative, pro-enterprise, ‘government doesn’t always know best’ approach can enable everyone to flourish and fulfil their aspirations will help us to make the case that we will address the challenges of the 2020s, just as we addressed the challenges of the 2010s.