The Article 50 letter has been signed and delivered. The negotiations will shortly begin.
Nobody should be under any illusions: the process that we are embarking on is of labyrinthine complexity. Things will get harder before they get easier. But as 64% of respondents agreed in a recent YouGov poll, there is no credible alternative but to respect the referendum result. Doing otherwise would mean far greater chaos and instability. Now is the time to come together as a nation and focus on getting the best deal for our country. Let’s seek out the opportunities too.
The UK starts this process in decent economic shape. Of the major advanced economies only Germany grew faster in 2016. We have more people in employment than at any time in our history. Unemployment is around 4.8% (in France it is closer to 10%). We have world-beating strengths in many areas including higher education, scientific research and cultural exports. And I believe that we can secure a future which is open, inclusive, tolerant and internationalist. We are leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe. And let me be clear too: if the EU decides to compromise even at this stage on the principle of absolute free movement as the price of the UK’s membership of the Single Market, I think we should keep that firmly on the table.
Here in Cheltenham, I was delighted to read in the Echo about the proposed introduction of Boris bikes – although at £7.50 for a minimum hire it’s not exactly cheap… I champion cycling, partly because it reduces CO2 emissions and improves air quality. But it’s also because I believe that everyday cycling is one of the simplest and most effective ways of defusing the UK's growing public health time bomb. The reality is that despite record sums being invested into the NHS, we face a serious and growing problem of lifestyle diseases (mental and physical) which absorb a dizzying proportion of health spending. We spend roughly the same as France, but we’re sicker as a nation.
Daily exercise is a crucial in tackling that. And although sport is great, how many of us realistically have the time to go off and play football on a weekday evening? Commuter cycling brings ‘health by stealth’. We should prioritise it.
This ‘modal shift’ won’t happen without decent roads. So I was heartened to read too about radical investment proposals for £150million extra in Gloucestershire’s roads from the local council. Our roads have been historically underfunded, let’s be clear, by all parties. Our generation has inherited a massive backlog of work which should have been sorted out at least a couple of decades ago. Let’s get them fixed once and for all.