The week in Westminster has been dominated by two events: the Prime Minister’s speech on Europe and this Friday’s Gross Domestic Product figures.
The GDP figures are always surrounded by secrecy. I am among a small group of people who get to see the data the day before it is released but with strict instructions not to breathe a word to anyone. In other words it’s the exact opposite of the Prime Minister’s speech, which seemed to be the subject of about a year’s open speculation before we finally got to hear it.
The GDP numbers were disappointing, but not entirely surprising. This country is still recovering from the massive economic trauma of 2008 and our recovery will be slow and a bit choppy. But I firmly believe we are slowly but steadily pointing things in the right direction. The fragility of the recovery makes it all the more important that we remain pragmatic, rather than dogmatic, as we reduce the budget deficit. We faced a choice in the autumn, when it became apparent how badly damaged our economy was, and how deep the black hole in our finances had become. We could take more time to balance the books or rush to cut expenditure even more deeply. We took the sensible option and decided to take more time.
For me there was a number this week that was just as important as GDP, and that was the encouraging unemployment figure that we received on Wednesday. I don’t say that just because those numbers showed another improvement – another 90,000 people in work – but because every number represents a person’s livelihood, their ability to look after their family, and their hopes for the future. The difference between having a job and not having a job matters far more to people than fluctuations in the decimal points of GDP.
That’s one of the reasons why I disagreed with the Prime Minister about his speech. I believe our focus in Government has to be on making sure we get people in work and keep them in work. And with millions of jobs in Britain relying on our participation in the EU now is not the time to be putting that into doubt.
Of course, life in Westminster isn’t only focused on the big things like Europe and jobs. This is a place that can get completely lost in its own introverted debates, as I learnt on Tuesday when I presented legislation to change the rules of Royal Succession so a princess can’t be usurped by her younger brother and heirs to the throne are permitted to marry a Catholic (they can already marry anyone of any other religion). You’d think that in the 21st century, when we have outlawed sex and religious discrimination everywhere else, MPs would be able to agree quickly on outlawing it in the Royal Family. But no: MPs argued for a full hour about whether we were rushing things, before we even got to the debate about whether it was the right thing to do!
Ensuring the next royal baby accedes to the throne might not affect people’s everyday lives. But it’s another small achievement for liberal principles, even if it isn’t one we’ll be discussing on every doorstep.