The Spring Statement is no longer billed as a major fiscal event, and while there were very few major announcements, there was certainly a move from the Government to show it is listening to people’s concerns and can do more than just Brexit. But of course, like many things at the moment, none of this can be seen outside of the Brexit context.
One of the bigger announcements was an additional £100m to tackle knife crime. Given the very real human tragedies knife crime has brought and the scale of this issue, this is perhaps not surprising but nevertheless will be seen as a political win for Home Secretary Sajid Javid. Interestingly, the Chancellor also spoke about how the forthcoming Spending Review would include “newly funded manpower” to help address this issue, which suggests that the Government will take action to directly address the issue of police numbers, an issue which has been challenging for Government.
On housing, we heard about a £3bn affordable homes guarantee scheme to support the delivery of 30,000 affordable homes, tapping into the concerns people have around the ability to own their own homes, and one of the key domestic priorities for the Government, Brexit aside.
On technology and the digital economy, the Government restated its commitment to see Britain remain at the forefront of the technological revolution, and the announcement that PhD level roles will be exempt from UK visa caps showcased the Government’s desire to show that Britain is open for business. But there was also a very clear message for the tech giants, with the Chancellor making clear that while the UK will remain a leading place for digital businesses to operate, tech giants will need to pay their fair share of tax and people will need to be protected from online harms. The Government has been increasingly robust in both its words and actions towards the tech companies and this looks set to continue.
The Chancellor was at pains to reassure businesses that the Conservative Party is the party of business, perhaps in a tacit acknowledgement that the relationship between Government and business has been damaged, not least due to the ongoing uncertainty around the Brexit process, the inability for Parliament to agree on a way forward and also the feeling on the part of some that the Government has been running down the clock on this. This was exemplified earlier today when CBI Director General Carolyn Fairbairn described the trade tariffs the Government set out as part of their No Deal planning as “the biggest change in terms of trade since mid-19th century” that was “being imposed on this country with no consultation with business with no time to prepare”, and she warned that the impact could be a “sledgehammer to our economy” as companies spend more on stockpiling.
The Chancellor also announced that from June 2019 citizens of United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Singapore and South Korea would be able to use e-gates at UK airports and UK ports of entry, in an attempt to demonstrate the Government’s commitment to Global Britain and its desire to show that Britain is open for business and will still play a key role on the world stage, in spite of Brexit.
And on Brexit, the Chancellor offered a prize and urged MPs to keep their eyes on it, when he said that he would conduct a three year Spending Review before the summer recess to be concluded alongside the Autumn Statement IF a deal can be agreed to leave the EU with and an orderly transition period. He also spoke of an Updated National Infrastructure Strategy to be published alongside this Spending Review that is dependent upon a deal being agreed. This is the “Brexit dividend”, an offer to back public services that people, so constituents, up and down the country care about like social care, policing, education with significantly more funding and the certainty of a three year envelope – but only if the UK avoids a No Deal scenario.
The Chancellor did not mince his words when speaking about Brexit and No Deal, warning that higher unemployment, lower wages and higher prices were not what the British people voted for.
He also spoke about how tonight MPs have the choice of “removing the threat of an imminent no-deal exit hanging over our economy”, and tomorrow they will have “the opportunity to start to map out a way forward, towards building a consensus across this House for a deal we can, collectively support, to exit the EU in an orderly way”.
Some on the Conservative benches will not have liked these remarks as they feel keeping No Deal on the table is essential for a credible negotiating position. Some MPs have already accused him of “blackmail” by attempting to link more public spending to the successful agreement and passing of a Brexit deal. But on this, it feels like the Chancellor is reflecting the mood of the House, where there isn’t any real appetite for a No Deal, and anything that happens next will require legislation, so that Parliamentary sweet spot that MPs can coalesce around to get a deal through, will need to be found.