RICHARD LITTLEJOHN: Let's turn Britain into a giant Freeport, Rishi
5th March 2021

RICHARD LITTLEJOHN: Let’s turn Britain into a giant Freeport, Rishi

Rishi is continuing to dole out largesse like there’s no tomorrow. Yet still it’s not enough for some people. He is pictured above with the Prime Minister on a visit to Teesport yesterday

My old mate Ron Todd, who used to run the Transport and General Workers’ Union, would grumble that no matter how good a deal he negotiated with the Ford Motor Company some of his members would never be satisfied.

‘Brothers and sisters, I’m delighted to tell you that management has agreed to an immediate 25 per cent pay rise across the board.

‘In addition, all employees will get 12 weeks’ paid holiday a year, a brand new company car and you’ll only have to work Wednesdays.’

From the back of the hall, a voice pipes up: ‘What, every bloody Wednesday?’

Why am I telling you this? Well, imagine that if this time last year, Chancellor Rishi Sunak had stood at the despatch box on Budget Day and announced: ‘For the next 18 months, the Government intends to pay 11.2 million people to stay at home on 80 per cent of their wages.

‘You’ll be free to sit in your gardens, firing up the barbecue, or stay indoors eating Hobnobs and watching daytime television.

‘Those of you fortunate enough to be able to work from home will save thousands of pounds on commuting costs and buying takeaway coffee. Furthermore, in August, from Mondays to Wednesdays, I’ll be spending £500 million subsidising half-price hamburgers all round.’

How long do you think it would be before someone complained: ‘And what are we supposed to eat on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays then, you tight-fisted git?’

Forgive me if I sound flippant. But much of the reaction to the Budget left me flabbergasted, if not altogether surprised.

Rishi is continuing to dole out largesse like there’s no tomorrow. Yet still it’s not enough for some people.

A procession of professional grievance-mongers has been whingeing about lack of money for this, that and the other.

Haven’t they noticed that for the past year, Britain has been in the grip of a pandemic, which has already gobbled up north of £400 billion and counting?

Where do they think this money is coming from? The Government can’t go on borrowing for ever. As a country, we already owe a staggering £2.1 trillion.

Well, imagine that if this time last year, Chancellor Rishi Sunak had stood at the despatch box on Budget Day and announced: ‘For the next 18 months, the Government intends to pay 11.2 million people to stay at home on 80 per cent of their wages. ‘You’ll be free to sit in your gardens, firing up the barbecue, or stay indoors eating Hobnobs and watching daytime television’

It will have to be repaid — a road upon which Sunak embarked this week, but only in baby steps.

Frankly, the revenue-raising measures he announced were incredibly modest in the circumstances.

OK, so he is freezing thresholds, but that hardly counts as a ‘stealth tax’ when he’s being up front about it. Gordon Brown slipped far worse under the radar.

It means someone earning £51,100 will have to find an extra £117 a year in 2022/23 — just over two quid a week, less than the price of a skinny latte.

Given the scale of the national debt, two pounds a week is a small price to pay, given the financial support the Government has forked out since last March.

It’s like a court ordering a benefits fraudster who has fiddled £50,000 out of the DSS to pay it back at £1.50 a week.

And let’s not forget that even after the Budget, more than 40 per cent of people still won’t be paying a single penny in tax. They will continue to be net beneficiaries.

Rishi would have been justified in clawing back much more in taxes, had it not been for the parlous state of the economy.

OK, so it’s easy to pick holes in the Budget, not least the two million ‘excluded’ people who haven’t received a penny from the Treasury because of bureaucractic intransigence and incompetence.

And what on earth is another increase in Air Passenger Duty supposed to achieve when most flights are still grounded and airlines are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy?

Big business will have to pick up larger corporation tax bills down the line. But I haven’t heard them squealing. If the economy takes off, they’ll have no problem generating the extra money.

The good news is that millions of small and medium-sized firms, the backbone of our economy, will be exempt from the higher rates.

These companies and their employees have borne the brunt of the Covid catastrophe. And the sooner they can get back to normal, the better.

Sunak’s performance throughout the pandemic has been assured, his daft Money For Nothing And Your Chips For Free gimmick aside.

On Wednesday, in the Commons he was again impressive, exposing the vacuity of the Opposition and his critics. The BBC was reduced to accusing him of breaking election manifesto commitments, despite the fact that he’s only frozen tax thresholds. The Tories have kept their election promise not to increase headline rates of income tax, NI and VAT — even though they could have been forgiven if they had.

Perhaps no one in the Broadcasting House politburo has spotted that since those commitments were made in 2019, the world has been turned upside down.

Maybe that’s because almost nobody at the BBC — or anywhere else in the public sector, for that matter — has lost their job or been forced to accept a substantial cut in their salary.

Would that we could say the same for the private sector, which has been clobbered by Covid lockdown after lockdown.

Millions owe the fact that they still have a job and a roof over their heads to the swift, decisive intervention of the Chancellor last March. For now, higher taxes in exchange for job security seems like a decent bargain. 

Of course, whether these people will still have their jobs when furlough ends is another matter. That depends on how quickly the economy is allowed to open up again.

Which is where I would aim my criticism of the Chancellor and the rest of the Cabinet, who are still showing too little courage in casting off the shackles of lockdown — despite vaccinations racing ahead and hospitalisations tumbling.

It’s time to bring the country out of its Covid coma, to breathe life back into the economy.

Sunak understands that the only way to escape from this mess is through generating prosperity, which is why his announcement of eight low-tax, light regulation Freeports — seven of them outside London and the South East — was the highlight of his Budget.

So, too, was the news that the Government intends to level up Britain by pumping £1 billion into ‘left-behind’ towns in the North and Midlands, and reward companies investing in plant and equipment ‘super deduction’ tax breaks of up to 130 per cent.

Those Freeports can’t come quickly enough — and wouldn’t have been possible at all had Britain remained manacled to the sclerotic, anti-competitive EU.

If it wasn’t for Covid, he could turn the whole country into one giant Freeport.

Ending furlough and the culture of entitlement which has grown up over the past year is going to be a hard sell, especially to the unions — some of whom would cheerfully see their members sitting at home for ever, their wages paid with borrowed money.

But that way bankruptcy lies. Ron Todd’s members lost their jobs donkey’s years ago when they refused to embrace economic reality.

Coincidentally, Ford’s former Dagenham plant, once Europe’s biggest car factory, will be at the heart of the new Thames Freeport, announced yesterday by the Chancellor, and is forecast to create 25,000 jobs.

But only if the staff agree to work every Wednesday.

Mandelson tells the story, against himself, of going into a fish and chip shop in his constituency and asking for a portion of that nice avocado dip. The bloke behind the counter pointed out it wasn’t avocado dip, it was mushy peas

As part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda, the Chancellor has announced that a new Treasury North is to be established in Darlington.

It will also house other economic departments, including energy, industrial strategy and international trade.

Up to 750 jobs will be created, and while the bulk will be recruited locally, some civil servants will have to transfer from Whitehall. 

That will be a bit of a culture shock for those who have rarely ventured outside London — just as it was when Peter Mandelson was parachuted in as Labour MP for Hartlepool. 

Mandelson tells the story, against himself, of going into a fish and chip shop in his constituency and asking for a portion of that nice avocado dip.

The bloke behind the counter pointed out it wasn’t avocado dip, it was mushy peas.

If the proprietors of chippies in Darlington play their cards right and don’t let on, they could soon be knocking out ‘avocado dip’ to Sir Humphreys for a tenner a pop.

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