ONE of the very few organisations to have performed well during the pandemic has been the Treasury’s horticultural department, which has – perhaps against the odds – kept the magic money tree thriving and yielding to meet the nation’s needs.
Knowing that this ‘miracle plant’ is genetically related to pixies and unicorns, the Chancellor is keen to end our reliance upon it at the earliest possible juncture.
However, perhaps uniquely, the biggest economic problem he faces is not actually the economy. It’s his master and neighbour, who has fallen into the clutches of the Stalinist Sage cabal exacerbated by lots of scheming and backstabbing between the various factions whom he fails to command.
With the utmost tact, the Chancellor needs to explain to the PM turnaround lesson 101, which is: ‘You’re in a hole – so stop digging.’
This would translate into the PM remembering that the purpose of the lockdown was not the (impossible) eradication of Covid, but the preservation of spare capacity in the NHS. That has been achieved.
Notwithstanding new strains for NHS track and trace to chase, courtesy of the vaccines the risk of death amongst the vulnerable is as low as it will ever be. (Note this is not, and never could be, zero).
Which means that continuing the lockdown is pointless, expensive and quite probably damaging to physical and mental health. Lifting the lockdown more aggressively saves money and lives.
The second impact of the PM laying off the JCB work would be to save money committed to vanity projects such as HS2. At the time, the economic need was marginal – given Zoom, the number of people who urgently need to get from Birmingham to London (and vice-versa) has diminished.
That does not mean that there is not merit in additional railways – just that they don’t have to be high speed (which adds hugely to their costs).
Having saved several tens of billions from immediate expenditure, the Chancellor has gained headroom. Which is vital, because no one is quite sure what the realities of work will be. There is increasing evidence that many are sick of work from home, so it’s too early to anticipate the demise of the office and city centres.
It’s probably also time for Rishi to remind Whitehall and Westminster that, left to its own devices, the private sector delivers growth. It needs no exotic encouragement from politicians and civil servants with near-zero commercial experience. Lift the lockdown and watch the growth.
Like us all, the private sector needs infrastructure, high speed and reliable internet access, roads that are safe and open, plus a finance system that works for commerce rather than the self-serving City that we currently have. But these challenges can be addressed while the existing spare capacity in the economy expands.
And we need the NHS that we were assured we had – one capable of surviving a pandemic – for there will surely be another pandemic. That means more beds and a much-improved ability to surge staff numbers.
Getting there will take a few quid (and a management purge). Rishi should expedite it. Because if we get that, we can then start travelling internationally and welcoming visitors and their money.
Other than that, for this year, steady as she goes must be the watchword. Tinkering with tax rules and rates will not solve the problem of the economy having been shut down, won’t balance the books and risks obstructing the private sector at a time when all that is required is for the Government to get out of the way.