Bill Jamieson: Applaud builders as UK rocked to its foundations

A crushing voter rebellion in the Euro elections, a prime minister on the way out, a packed field of Tory leader wannabes, a general election looming and speculation about our future at fever pitch: it’s a wonder any normal business these days is being done.

The work of Scots builders continues amid the political chaos. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA
The work of Scots builders continues amid the political chaos. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA

But being done it is, from engineering to IT, housebuilding to farming, delivery services to hospitality – life goes on amid the political chaos and breakdown. The Scottish business diary is choc-a-bloc with business conferences and look-ahead seminars – as if anything over the next six months can be safely predicted. Beyond that is a gaping void. Good luck to the speakers – and the audience.

Amid the many events jostling for attention in the coming weeks, there is one that might tip-toe by unnoticed but which deserves particular celebration in these febrile times: the Scotland Master Builder Awards being held in Edinburgh on Thursday, 6 June.

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It is something of a wonder, given the huge uncertainties that businesses have now had to endure for almost three years, that one brick is still being laid upon another. But every day, thousands of builders sally forth for projects ranging from the glitziest new office building to the modest home extension and repair job.

We often hear of work that has gone wrong or of jobs uncompleted – the dreaded ‘snagging list’ that seems to attend every new home. But we should celebrate more than we do the vast majority of jobs that are completed to time, to client satisfaction and to a level of expertise and skill that is continually improving.

Much of this skills improvement is due to the Federation of Master Builders. It is the largest trade organisation in the UK construction industry and operates independent inspection and vetting of members to provide credible proof of their calibre. This year’s FMB Scotland Master Builder awards will celebrate outstanding achievement by firms and members from Shetland to Ayrshire, with 13 awards in total.

A routine, humdrum event, you may think until you consider how dependent we are on the availability and competence of builders, particularly small firms, to attend to everyday needs – often urgent and challenging. This has been a particularly trying period for the industry with many major projects delayed or put on ice because of the uncertainty over Brexit – and that doesn’t look to end any time soon. But FMB Scotland director Gordon Nelson tells me that firms report activity levels are holding up and that overall workload is good in the circumstances. The news may be deeply depressing. But life goes on.

Who’s next as Chancellor?

It’s only speculation, I know, but these days everyone is at it – and much of it will now focus on who the new prime minister will be. But to the long list of feverish rumination should be added the future of Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Theresa May loyalist, dogged Remainer, and notably reluctant planner for a no-deal Brexit.

A Boris Johnson premiership would almost certainly bring wholesale changes to the existing cabinet (or what remains of it), with the removal or demotion of those who have been complicit in enabling May to survive for as long as she has.

That would inevitably bring searching questions to bear on the future of Hammond, the former foreign secretary who has been chancellor since 2016, when he was promoted by May. He has hardly been the most convincing champion of the low-hanging fruits of Brexit – low-hanging dangers he has well identified.

No less uncertain is the direction of tax and fiscal policy under a new premiership. Contenders for the job range from Rory Stewart, who seeks a “radical centrist” agenda of Cameron-style environmentalism; and Amber Rudd, dogged supporter of the much-criticised HS2 rail project; to Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary who wants a basic income tax cut, and Thatcherite Liz Truss.

It could well be that, whoever enters the door of No 10, may see merit in keeping “Spreadsheet Phil” in situ at No 11 to reassure business and overseas investors and minimise further uncertainty. This is particularly the case when the pound has been falling and investors have been increasingly wary of the UK’s prospects. There is much to be said for a dull chancellorship when all around is uncertainty and confusion.

Hammond’s standing has been boosted by official figures last week showing a further decline in the budget deficit. Public sector net borrowing, excluding state-owned banks, fell by £30 million to £5.8 billion for April – the lowest April figure since 2007. Government spending jumped by £1.8bn to £66.5bn, but tax receipts also rose, up £1.4 bn to £61.2bn for April.

However, the Office for Budget Responsibility said it expects borrowing for the current financial year to rise from £24.7bn in the financial year to the end of March to £29.3bn for 2019-20. It puts the rise down to – no surprises here – the potential for uncertainty surrounding a no-deal Brexit. Now is hardly the time, some might warn, for any sharp change in economic policy.

But change is what many in the Conservative Party now urge. They say the leadership has lost its way, that it has succumbed to a Cameron-Blair agenda of ever rising spending and dull managerialism. It has not only lost its appeal to voters as a tax-cutting party, but also its former reputation for economic management. And there is certainly a strong feeling within the ranks that it needs to offer a countervailing vision to the radical left programme of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

There needs to be more on offer than the fall-back mantra of phantom efficiencies and small-scale savings from shuffling the duties of government departments. However, a bolder change in economic direction may have to await the outcome of a general election and here there is no certainty whatever that a programme with the implicit agenda of spending curbs and a smaller state would prevail against a combination of Corbynite radicalism, a trenchant SNP and resurgent Liberal Democrats.

An anti-Tory coalition would make the current uncertainty seem like a mildly inconvenient haar by comparison. To an already tumultuous mix, add the prospect of a flight of business confidence. Whoever said “onwards and upwards”?