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It is the season of goodwill, unusually for a North East columnist, I want to offer some of that goodwill to the person who has undertaken the thankless and enormously complex task of leading the Government this year.
Our Prime Minister ends this year politically weaker than she started it but ends this month stronger than recent months. Theresa May has regained the grudging respect of many people in business and politics after a period since the general election when we really were asking, ‘what the hell was going on?’ After the General Election I wrote in this newspaper about Mrs May’s ‘ill-conceived and poorly implemented’ election campaign and lambasted the presentation of ‘half-baked’ policy ideas.
Today, it is possible to see the Prime Minister in a new light. She has clearly worked day and night on Brexit, the greatest peacetime policy challenge since the turn of the century. Throughout the tortuous months during which everybody had a different opinion on how to negotiate, MPs of every party tried to grab the initiative, business leaders worked themselves up into a lather of worry and concern but Mrs May has shown the necessary combination of flexibility and firmness to achieve a workable deal with the EU.
That 11 Conservatives voted for a motion to allow the House of Commons another look at the deal should not be a massive concern to the PM. If they foolishly reject her deal, they will be left with the existing position of an EU exit with no deal. Furthermore, after watching BBC Question Time from Barnsley last week, it was evident that working people will hold MPs in contempt if they attempt to delay or destroy Brexit. The audience’s anger at MPs who postulate was palpable; the people made a choice and expect it to be carried out. Commentators who advocated remain, including myself, need to accept the result and move on by encouraging the country to make the best of Brexit. I’m witnessing a new wave of Brexit-realism in business. Law firms, like Newcastle’s Square One Law, are gearing up to advise businesses on how to deal with the consequences whatever the direction or outcome of the EU negotiations. A new North East based initiative, Future Vision UK, has started to inspire and stimulate businesses into considering “life after Brexit”. Leaders like Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen (pictured), are advocating post-Brexit policies, such as a pilot for a Freeport on Teesside. The conversation in business is turning from one of exasperation with the vote to practical arrangements for dealing with it. Politicians need to catch up.
The Prime Minister promised to implement the best deal possible and to respect the people’s will to leave. That promise looks more possible to implement this month than last month. The Brexit debate does not show Labour in the best light either. It seems that whatever the Government’s position, Labour wants a softer stance towards the EU. It is riven apart by support for Brexit in its Northern heartlands and the ‘stop-Brexit’ bandwagon among its more liberal, metropolitan members. The London Left seems to have won over the hearts and minds of the shadow cabinet, which should come as no surprise given that its Leader, the shadow-Chancellor, the shadow-Home Secretary, the Europe spokesman, and the shadow-Foreign Secretary all represent London seats and are out of step with Labour voters in the North.
The success of stage one of Brexit comes hard on the heels of a budget in which the North East was not forgotten. Serious investment in the Tyne and Wear Metro combined with new transport and regeneration funding for Tees Valley was as welcome as the decisions to hold fuel duty at a time of oil price rises and to maintain tax incentives to entrepreneurs and business when commentators wanted them to be hit hard.
The Budget was in serious contrast to the Labour policy, which advocates unsustainable levels of spending that even the shadow-Chancellor concedes could cause a run on the pound. It would hit businesses with tax rises that would deter investment and would punish entrepreneurs with confiscatory rates of tax that send a signal that, no matter how much they risk, 50% of the largest financial rewards will be taken by the Government via punitive taxes.
In politics, 2017 was the year of the unexpected. Next year promises more of the same. However, it is my opinion that having the Conservatives running the Government, holding the office of the Mayor of Tees Valley and having a number of strong and vocal MPs in the North East bodes well for 2018. Not everything looks bad for Theresa May.