This article was initially published in City AM on 19th April
Calling an early General Election will, in all likelihood, be seen as a pragmatic step to strengthen the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. While Continental Europe faces instability from the rise of populist parties and persistent issues with the single currency, there is now a real prospect of Theresa May going into talks with the EU with a large, stable parliamentary majority from 9 June onwards.
Yet if May triumphs in this election, she will have a mandate until 2022. There is much more to this vote than the Brexit negotiations, which are due to end in 2019. In fact, the favourable backdrop and a divided opposition give the Prime Minister as many, if not more, opportunities to pursue radical reform in the domestic sphere. May has a unique chance to advocate a wide-ranging policy agenda to boost the UK’s competitiveness, while offering tangible ways of increasing the incomes of the so-called just about managing.
Some of this agenda could be achieved directly as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Measures such as the EU Renewable Energy Directive, for example, have been partially responsible for the punitive electricity prices faced by UK industry and households. Brexit opens the way for an energy policy that prioritises affordability and security of supply.
But to really seize the promise of this moment, the Prime Minister should embrace in her manifesto a whole range of measures completely unrelated to EU membership. Wide-ranging planning reform to increase construction and tackle the undersupply in the UK’s housing market, building on the progress already made by the government in the Housing White Paper, should be high on the agenda.
The UK’s education system will also be an important battleground. Here, any incoming administration will need to advocate proposals that deal with chronic education selection by house price. It is a scandal that there is a 20 per cent house price premium near to top comprehensives.
The free schools policy has certainly helped redress this issue somewhat. These schools are three times more likely to be found in deprived areas and, on average, have higher than average standards. Yet more needs to be done, and May’s proposals for new grammar schools could be a further step in the right direction. A policy that enables new grammars in areas with few good or outstanding schools could spread opportunity to the disadvantaged, while raising standards across the UK’s education system.
It is also time to address some of the long-term issues that have been ducked by successive governments. The future of the NHS is a case in point. It is widely understood that an ageing population and the growing cost of medicines will place intolerable strains on the health service over the coming decades. A non-party political Royal Commission, as proposed by Maurice Saatchi, is long overdue. If properly set up and directed, it could be hugely effective in identifying and analysing the enormous challenges faced by the NHS – not to mention a great legacy for May herself.
This is a chance too to address long-running issues with the UK’s enormous and complex tax code. In particular, the merging of National Insurance and Income Tax has long been discussed as a way of simplifying the tax code. Yet regrettably, this is a decision that has been repeatedly avoided. A policy to lower and combine National Insurance and Income Tax – which could perhaps be paid for by neutralising the current advantages of pensions tax relief for higher rate taxpayers – would be a transformative move that could increase the UK’s competitiveness.
This all amounts to a radical agenda that many politicians would be wary of advocating in ordinary times. But the immensely favourable backdrop to this election is a once in a generation opportunity. May now has the chance to grasp the benefits of Brexit, advocate policies that will turbo-charge UK competitiveness, and deal with the long-term challenges that have been ducked by successive administrations.