II’m sure, just like me, you learned the hard way telling your first elaborate lie in school. It didn’t end well, as it led to more lies. Most responsible people learn these lessons young and don’t apply them in their professional lives. Unfortunately, the same does not seem to be true for today’s government.
I have always been proud of our UK’s strong democracy and fact-based debate. Brexit changed that, and our government entered a game of lies and cover-ups on steroids. As the debate about whether or not we should ‘do Brexit’ started I remember feeling very confident about getting into the debate as I was sure the facts would be the most importants. I was wrong. As we now know, the facts – certainly when it comes to economics – have been largely ignored.
“There will be no border in the Irish Sea” we have been told. “There will be no friction in trade with the EU;” “there will be no labor shortage”. I was sure the facts would soon come out and the lies would come crashing down. But the lies kept coming. We’ve heard the argument that we can deregulate our markets, cut taxes and still meet all our climate change and environmental obligations. We’ve heard the argument that we could deregulate and still maintain the highest standards of worker protection. And we heard about the increase in cover-ups, about illegalityand how poorly our underlying economy was working – not to mention the very elaborate move to hide party culture at the heart of government.
The reality is that years of lies, political mistakes 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 color – must focus on rebuilding the UK’s global reputation. We can take a number of steps to achieve this, including taking a transparent, long-term economic view that combines fiscal discipline with a long-term green industrial policy that the UK can pursue globally.
There is another political option that no one yet has the confidence to reverse, and that is to join the single market and customs union. It was the biggest lie of all: that we could replace the economic rise to be part of the most advanced free trade area in the world. No independent trade agreement can replace its economic benefit. It is time to face this as a country.
It is not a question of opening a debate on reintegration into the EU. This ship sailed some time ago. But there is a new possibility. The EU has extended 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 its single market and its many collaborative bodies.
In my view, now is the perfect time for our new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to pivot and send a clear signal globally that we have listened and learned, and that we are going to take sensible action to restore our reputation for pragmatism and economic sensitivity. . That would mean not pandering to the European research group and right-wing think tanks, which have been instrumental in much of the chaos of recent months and weeks. Politically, it would be a courageous change, and economically very pragmatic. By doing so, we would be able to re-engage in European markets and launch a new responsible growth coalition that we can all be proud of.
It is an idea whose time has come. Liberal Democrats believe in it. The work must pivot there. But the conservatives have power and Sunak, new to power, has power, authority and goodwill. This would make good use of these three attributes.
Jürgen Maier is vice-chairman of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, co-founder of the social enterprise vocL and former managing director of Siemens UK