I’m sure, like me, you learned it the hard way when you told your first extended lie in school. It didn’t end well because it led to more lies. Most responsible people learn these lessons young and don’t take them into their professional lives. Unfortunately, the same does not appear to be true of the current government.
I have always been proud of our UK’s strong democracy and fact-based debate. Brexit changed this and our government started a game of lies and cover-ups on steroids. When the debate started about whether or not we should do “Brexit”, I remember being very confident in getting into the debate, knowing that the facts would matter most. I was wrong. As we now know, the facts – certainly as far as the economy are concerned – have been largely ignored.
“There will be no border in the Irish Sea,” we were told. “There will be no friction in trade with the EU;” “There will be no shortage of manpower.” I was sure that the facts would come out soon and the lies would come crashing down. But the lies kept coming. We heard the argument that we could deregulate our markets, cut taxes, and still meet all our climate change and environmental commitments. We heard the argument that we could deregulate and still maintain the highest standards of worker protection. And we heard about the increasing cover-ups, about illegality and how poorly our underlying economy was performing – not to mention the very elaborate action to cover up the party culture at the heart of government.
The reality is that years of lies, policy blunders and incompetence have seriously damaged the UK’s reputation. Credibility is the cornerstone of the UK’s license to operate in international markets. And the next government – whatever shadow that may be – must focus on rebuilding the UK’s global reputation. There are a number of steps we can take to do this, including having a transparent long-term economic vision that combines fiscal discipline with a long-term green industrial policy that can lead the UK globally.
There is another policy option that no one is yet confident in turning back, and that is to rejoin the single market and customs union. It was the biggest lie of all: that we could replace economic advantage by being part of the most advanced free trade zone in the world. No independent trade agreement can replace its economic benefits. It’s time to face this as a country.
This does not mean opening a debate on returning to the EU. That ship sailed some time ago. But there is a new possibility. The EU has held up an olive branch: to join a group of European countries that do not want to be part of the EU, but want to benefit from the internal market and the many cooperation bodies.
This, I believe, is a perfect time for our new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to send out a clear signal worldwide that we have listened and learned, and that we will take sensible steps to restore our reputation for pragmatism and economic sensitivity. This would mean not giving in to the European Research Group and right-wing think tanks, which have played a major role in the chaos of recent months and weeks. Politically it would be a bold shift, and economically a very pragmatic one. By doing so, we would be able to re-enter markets across Europe and start a new responsible growth coalition that we can all be proud of.
It is an idea whose time has come. The Liberal Democrats believe in it. Labor must participate in this. But the conservatives have power and Sunak, new in office, has power, authority and goodwill. This would be a good use of those three attributes.
Jürgen Maier is vice-chairman of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, co-founder of the social enterprise vocL, and former chief executive officer of Siemens UK