Boris Johnson is due some praise.
Whether or not he was right to float publicly the idea of sharing the financial benefits of Brexit with the hallowed but failing NHS is not worthy of consideration here. I could wax lyrical about how we might improve the NHS – suffice to say money is not the key.
No, concern should not be focused on the supposed “leak” by Boris, but about how our politicians direct and craft our political discussion. It is not as if his colleagues, including the chancellor himself, have not mouthed-off outside cabinet suggesting what shape the negotiations should take – or what should be the outcome.
Let us recall that, were it not for Boris, we could be facing a so-called “transition” period of five years, imposed upon us by Philip Hammond without any public discussion.
That’s right, five years. Thank you, Boris, for calling him out publicly.
Worse still, we can now see that, as the Brexit negotiations evolve, the “transition” is no such thing – it is, in everything but name, an extension of our membership, only worse. It now looks like we shall be paying over-the-odds but have less say than if we had agreed to a continued membership of four years – instead of two years of membership and two years of “transition”.
I must, however, move on, and use the foreign secretary’s timely and pertinent NHS intervention to point to what should be important to the Tory government. It is the one core issue that the party is poor at: namely, talking up the benefits of Brexit.
In reminding the cabinet that voters will be looking for rewards from Brexit, Boris is being an honest politician looking towards the government’s (and dare I say it, the country’s) own interests. If there are no rewards, no Brexit bonuses, then what will be the point?
The people voted for change, and politicians who support it should be pointing to a variety of outcomes that Brexit can make possible. The absence of such a strategy only feeds the suspicion that the Prime Minister does not believe in the project and is using weasel words to convey she is leading from the front. She takes the “lead” by responding to Michel Barnier’s positions, instead of striking her own.
I like to think that, in the City, no business executive would last five minutes behaving in such a submissive way. To rebuild any personal credibility with the public, the Prime Minister either has to embrace the Brexit project positively, or retire and hand it over to a disciple of the faith.
My career is in communications, and what is obvious to me – and no doubt many of my peers – is that what this government requires is a programme that conveys to the British public what positive benefits they can expect from Brexit. In addition to scaring the bejeebers out of Barnier and the EU Commission (a useful negotiating lever), it will bolster support for the government’s approach.
Yes, Boris is right, we should be putting money back into the NHS, if at least in the short term while reforms are conceived. But we should give something directly to the people – and reducing the VAT rate must be in the mix.
VAT is a regressive tax; cutting it helps the poorest and wrong-foots Jeremy Corbyn. VAT was raised as a means to deal with the financial crisis – lowering it would be a reward, and would signal (belatedly, as the Tories have to admit) that “austerity” is now over.
Personal taxes cannot be cut any further while indirect taxes such as VAT, stamp duty and capital gains tax are stifling economic activity. The government’s focus must shift to rebooting the economy towards higher growth, and rewarding the Brexit public for allowing a British chancellor more freedom to set our own tax rates to suit ourselves.
There can be no more powerful message to statists here – or in Brussels – than cutting the UK VAT rate and demonstrating Britain is taking charge of its economic destiny.