Ronald Reagan once famously observed that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”
The President had a point. As a rule, most businesspeople are instinctively wary of officialdom, and feel that the best service the Government can render them is simply to stay out of their way and let them get on with the job of building enterprises and creating wealth.
But there are always exceptions to every rule, and the exception to Ronnie’s pronouncement has emerged in the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Just four short months ago, nobody had heard of the virus that now dominates our lives and waking thoughts, making us fear for our very futures. So swift was the spread of the disease that, within weeks of its discovery, most of the nations of the developed world were in lockdown, their trade, commerce and industry frozen in a state of suspended animation.
In such potentially catastrophic circumstances, only the biggest of big bazookas could possibly provide an answer, and that was deployed in a swift series of Government interventions announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. His support plan, ranging from grants and guaranteed loans to the effective assumption by the Government of the wages bills of millions of employers, is radical, bold and eye-wateringly expensive. It will, for sure, leave the country with enormous debt, but the alternative would have been too dreadful to contemplate: the failure of hundreds of thousands of firms, and the mass unemployment of millions of workers that would have gone with it.
I am proud of what the Government has done. The interventions are not perfect, certainly, and gaps in provision have been identified; but how could it be otherwise, when such a huge, far-ranging scheme had to be put in place virtually overnight? Nonetheless, it has been refined, and will continue to be refined, to try to plug those gaps And I know, from the hundreds of constituents I have spoken to since this crisis began, that the Government’s measures are highly valued. They are interventions that could have been made only by a determined, strongly-led Government able to command the resources of a major global economy.
Of course, the current state of affairs cannot and must not prevail forever. The country needs to get back to work; and the next decision for the Government is when that should happen. The economy must be kickstarted again, but relaxing the lockdown restrictions too soon could mean a second, more devastating, spike in infections, leading to an appalling number of fatalities and the overwhelming of the NHS. That really would destroy our economy.
Timing will be crucial; and it is a decision that, ultimately, can be made only by the Prime Minister, who knows better than anyone just how dangerous this virus is.
For me, as an MP, the last few weeks have been exhausting but, paradoxically, remarkably rewarding. My team of very young, bright people, working from their homes scattered across the country, from Kent to Colwyn Bay, have worked liked Trojans. It has been a privilege to work with them. The weekend after the lockdown started, we helped repatriate dozens of Britons stranded in far-flung places across the entire globe, from Argentina to the Philippines. Our finest moment was when we helped secure the return of a senior consultant marooned in Bangalore, enabling him to get back to his important work in the Intensive Care Unit at Glan Clwyd.
These are difficult days, certainly. But this too shall pass. And then it will be up to every businessman and woman to help this great country recover and get back on the road to prosperity.
In other words, Business Club members, it will be up to you. And I hope that you may acknowledge that, on this occasion, the intervention of the Government – contrary to the 40th President’s maxim – truly did provide real, valuable and welcome help.