Why did the Chancellor not mention it in his speech? It is true, as somebody said recently, that this is a “mono-purpose” Government, and that everything has been blown out of the water because of Brexit. Why be so coy about it? They are pretending that it is not an issue, saying, “It’s fine. We’ll cope. Don’t worry, there’s nothing to see here.” But Brexit will be at the front and centre of our considerations.
Let us look at what has happened since sterling has been devalued so significantly. Consumer spending, which has propped up our economy so much in recent months, has started to feel the squeeze. Retail sales are already starting to head down. If we do not have consumers with such spending power—if living standards are squeezed, and wages do not keep pace with that—we should not be surprised if our economy starts to shudder. The OBR says on page 6 of its report that we will see a squeeze on GDP growth in the year ahead.
We know that we have a productivity problem, and at least the Chancellor acknowledged that, but unless we can find some way to catch up with the Germans and the French and to narrow the productivity gap—they produce in four days what our employees in this country take five days to produce—we will not generate the wages we need to ensure that there is growth and prosperity.
The uncertainty hanging over businesses that export and depend on trade for their income is immense. That is not just about market access, because services account for 80% of our economy, and whatever free trade agreements Ministers manage to get—they had jolly well better get a free trade agreement—such agreements tend not to deal with service sector trading issues. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research predicts that there may be a 61% fall in our trade in services, even with a free trade agreement. Ministers have got their work cut out, and I think it is astonishing that the Chancellor did not mention Brexit. That is the big issue in the Budget.