Capital, people, ideas. A simple strategy but one built on much thought and observation about the future direction of the global economy, and Britain’s place in it. These are the strategic priorities outlined by Rishi Sunak in his Mais lecture last Thursday. To be more accurate, the word ‘private’ should be added as a critical pre-cursor to all three words.
This was the heart of Sunak’s ambition, to incentivise much greater private sector investment in all three areas. Sunak’s position as a free-market enthusiast was never in doubt and this belief in the benefits free markets deliver sits at the heart of his political and economic philosophy. As such it is unsurprising that his core aim is to lift private investment rather than deploying the power of the state. This approach will be challenged as pressure grows for intervention to soften the impact of rising inflation and the cost of living crisis but his starting point is fundamentally fiscally hawkish.
But what does this tell us about Sunak’s likely approach to policy development in future and key questions around tax and spending priorities?
This message was unambiguous. Sunak wants to cut taxes but emphatically does not believe that all tax cuts automatically pay for themselves. Indeed, the unspoken message here was more about tax rises coming down the line. The example cited was Thatcher and Lawson in their first term – fixing the public finances before going on to deliver lower taxes.
There is already intense pressure from the Tory backbenches to scrap or delay the national insurance rise due in April. It is clear the Chancellor will resist those calls if he possibly can given the premium he is placing on strengthening the public finances. This will be a key test of the strength of his resolve, and political positioning ahead of any future leadership bid.
The Chancellor acknowledged that a ‘cloud of uncertainty’ over Brexit and Covid had played a part in holding back business investment but set out his ambition to turn that around now that the cloud had passed. He accepted that low corporation tax on its own had not been enough and indicated that cutting taxes on business investment will be a future priority. Capital allowances are the most obvious tool to deliver this which is likely to be good news for manufacturers.
Consistent with his central theme, the message was that the state is playing its part with an upbeat analysis of the state of schools and university education in the UK. The gap in the Chancellor’s view is the provision of adult technical skills and the need to promote continuous lifelong learning. He wants to see much greater investment from the private sector in upskilling the UK’s workforce.
He pledged to ‘reform the complexity and confusion’ of the current technical education system, noting people currently must navigate a menu of thousands of different qualification options at levels 3 and 4. Reform is clearly on the agenda. Beyond this, he noted he would examine whether the Apprenticeship Levy ‘is doing enough to incentivise businesses to invest in the right kinds of training’.
There will clearly be opportunities for business to inform the Treasury’s thinking on how best to incentivise skills investment, with greater flexibility in the Apprenticeship Levy a potentially valuable outcome.
Once again, Sunak’s diagnosis is that the state’s contribution is already generous enough and the gap that needs to be filled is from the private sector. His vision is optimistic, believing new technology such as artificial intelligence can significantly boost productivity across multiple sectors of the economy. However, he was ambiguous on the mechanism for delivering this.
The tax regime is the clear focus for intervention and Sunak strikingly noted that despite apparently generous R&D tax reliefs available in the UK, ‘business spending on R&D amounts to just four times the value of R&D tax relief. The OECD average? 15 times.’ Clearly the level of the reliefs isn’t the only issue and the Treasury is likely to take a close look at how these reliefs are structured and what more can be done to reform the current approach.
This is likely to open up interesting opportunities for knowledge intensive industries, but those that currently benefit from R&D reliefs will need to be alive to the potential impact of change to the system.
Many suspect (and are concerned) that the Chancellor is less interested in the green agenda and decarbonisation than some of his Cabinet colleagues. This speech didn’t assuage those worries. There was no focus on climate change or environmental issues. Indeed, the words ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘carbon’ didn’t feature at all, with only a passing reference to climate change and a single reference to electric vehicles and offshore wind as examples of areas where productivity increases could be found.
Of course, there will likely be other occasions where he seeks to burnish his green credentials, particularly as he will need a coherent green narrative in the event of any future leadership bid. But this speech tells us is that Sunak’s priority as Chancellor is first and foremost restoring the public finances and driving growth via private sector investment. Where green initiatives and decarbonisation help deliver this, he welcomes them but ‘green for green’s sake’ doesn’t appear to be part of his core focus.
There are three core points to consider from this speech:
The Chancellor has a plan, and it centres on businesses investing more. This means the voice of business will be critical in shaping the future economic strategy of this Government.