The clocks were wound back last Sunday morning and most of the country took solace in that extra hour of sleep. In Westminster, many politicians would love to go back much further, to a time before the spectre of Brexit uncertainty cast such a dark shadow over the country.
The Brexit due date of 29 March is now less than 150 days away, but the public, businesses, and politicians of every political hue are increasingly dismayed by the Conservatives’ farcical negotiations.
This is one of the reasons why, only two weeks ago, 700,000 people marched on Parliament Square in London to demand the public is given the final say on Brexit. They came from all over the UK, from the Highlands to the Welsh valleys, in what was the biggest political event of its kind since the Iraq War.
The march proved a crucial point: Brexit is not inevitable. Where there is public and political will, there is a way. We can still secure an exit from the Conservatives’ chaotic Brexit through a People’s Vote.
At this crucial juncture in the Brexit misadventure, the Chancellor took to the floor of the Commons this week to deliver the Budget, declaring that the era of austerity was “finally coming to an end”. A bold claim. The reality is that this was a standstill Budget, neither ending austerity nor addressing the fundamental problems in the economy.
It was also caught in that spectre. Brexit, if it happens, will inevitably hurt the UK’s public finances. Moreover, Hammond has acknowledged a no-deal scenario would scupper all the plans he’s laid out and force him to bring forward an emergency budget as soon as April. If no deal emerged, trade ties would be abandoned, investment repelled, and public services would be under threat.
The Chancellor conceded on the need to tax digital giants, but his plans would take what amounts to peanuts from the likes of Facebook and Google – it would not even pay for his potholes fund. Michael Gove has tried to convince the country that the Conservatives are eco-friendly, but Hammond walked away from environmental measures to curb coffee cup use. And in amongst the 72 minutes of announcements was the admission that the budget for Brexit administration has been boosted by £500 million.
Hammond also decided to lift the tax threshold for higher earners to £50,000 a year early, which we voted against this week. The move will cost the Treasury about £1.3 billion, which should have been used to fill the hole in Universal Credit or end the benefits freeze a year early.
This week the Conservatives had the platform to invest in public services and give businesses the certainty they need to invest. Instead, Hammond pandered to The Sun and agreed to the gimmick of issuing a Brexit 50p coin.
The way things are going the coin will only be worth about 25p by the time it arrives in March. Also, if Brexit goes ahead, the last thing people will want to be reminded about when looking inside their strained wallets is the havoc of leaving the EU.
Take Jaguar Land Rover. This great British brand employs 40,000 people in the UK and has just suffered a sales slide of 13 per cent, in large part because of the uncertain landscape of Brexit. JLR’s management has been clear about the risks of cutting ourselves off from our European neighbours and business partners. JLR is cutting jobs and has been forced to pause production.
This is the real-life impact of Brexit.
And what Scots are missing out on under current leadership is the creative thinking to make real change happen. After a decade of the SNP, growth is flimsy and productivity is lagging. It couldn’t be clearer that investing in people through education and mental health is the way to make the most of the talents we already have right here on our doorstep.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Liberal Democrats demand better and want to see a Britain in which everyone is able to fulfil their potential and are treated fairly.
A major part of this ambition could be achieved through fixing Britain’s broken tax system, which isn’t producing sufficient funds to keep our public services in solid working order.
Business rates penalise business investment and should be abolished, while we should be looking to more fairly tax wealth through pension reform and taxing capital gains and dividends more like earned income.
Our alternative budget would invest in communities and properly fund Universal Credit so that work always pays, and everyone gets the support they need. The real end to austerity will be when our public services see fair funding and are able to thrive.
Brexit is happening because David Cameron believed he could settle the Conservatives’ decades-long civil war over Europe through a referendum. He failed; that infighting grows only bloodier. Cameron’s hubris has seen, and will continue to see, ordinary people suffer.
What was needed to help people was a radical Budget. Instead, Hammond took a sticky plaster to a wound that requires major surgery.
Sir Vince Cable is leader of the UK Liberal Democrats and MP for Twickenham