You have power, Rishi Sunak. Use it. Rejoin the single market and customs union

This op-ed/blog from myself first appeared in the Guardian on 25th October 2022

I’m sure that, just like me, you learned the hard way when telling your first elaborate lie at school. It didn’t end well, as it led to more lies. Most responsible people learn these lessons young, and do not carry them into their professional life. Sadly, the same doesn’t seem true for today’s government.

I have always been proud of our UK’s strong democracy and fact-based debate. Brexit changed this, and our government entered a game of lies and coverups on steroids. As the debate of whether we should or should not “do Brexit” started, I remember being very confident about entering the debate, as I was sure that the facts would matter most. I was wrong. As we now know, the facts – certainly as far as the economy is concerned – were 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 labour.” I was sure that the facts would soon emerge and the lies would crash down. But the lies kept coming. We heard the argument that we could deregulate our markets, reduce taxes and still meet all our obligations to climate change and the environment. We heard the argument that we could deregulate yet maintain the highest standards of worker protection. And we heard about the increasing coverups, about illegality, and how badly 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 severely damaged the UK’s reputation. Credibility is the cornerstone of the UK’s licence to operate in international markets. And the next government – whatever shade that will 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 and long-term economic vision that marries fiscal discipline with a long-term green industrial policy that the UK can lead globally.

There is another policy option that no one yet has the confidence to reverse, and that is to rejoin the single market and customs union. It was the biggest lie of them all: that we could replace the economic upside of being part of the most advanced free-trade zone in the world. No independent trade deal can replace its economic upside. It is time to face up to this as a country.

This does not mean opening a debate about rejoining the EU. That ship sailed some time ago. But there is a new possibility. The EU has held out an olive branch: to join a grouping of European countries that don’t want to be part of the EU but do want to benefit from its single market and many collaborative bodies.

This in my view is a perfect moment 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 steps to restore our reputation for pragmatism and economic sensibility. This would mean not pandering to the European Research Group and rightwing thinktanks, which have been instrumental in much of the chaos of recent months and weeks. Politically, it would be a brave shift, and economically a very pragmatic one. In doing so we would be able to re-engage in markets across Europe and start a new responsible growth coalition that we can be all be proud of.

It’s an idea whose time has come. The Liberal Democrats believe in it. Labour needs to pivot to it. But the Conservatives have power and Sunak, new in office, has power, authority and goodwill. This would be putting those three attributes to good use.

1 thought on “You have power, Rishi Sunak. Use it. Rejoin the single market and customs union”

  1. I feel proud of Jurgen Maier CBE FRS representing a view from Industry and at the same time I feel sorry for him because the present British Government is simply not listening. (the official opposition is hardly much better).

    In his speech to the CBI Conference today the Prime Minister answered a question on immigration by ignoring the question and asking himself a question on illegal immigration and answering that instead. It is almost as if he is grateful to the people traffickers landing people on our shores because talking about that saves talking about subjects for which the Government does not have the real answers. Of course the plight of those poor immigrants arriving in Britain that way is appalling and conditions for many of them are not exactly great once they arrive here.
    The common assumption is that their passage is facilitated by criminal gangs but are we admitting the fact that those gangs are beyond the law?

    The Public services and various industry sectors are suffering staff shortages which will require immigration. The Government reluctantly talks of the effects of Covid in causing these shortages, never once can they bring themselves to own up to the fact that Brexit might have been a significant cause as well.

    The immigration policy the Prime Minister wanted to talk about was to be “the best in the world”, note still some time in the future, bringing the brightest and the best talent to Britain.
    The meaning of this appears to be well qualified and already earning high pay. Well forgive us lesser mortals when we look around and see that a lot of the vacancies are just as pressing and are for somewhat less qualified individuals. People that by being allowed to settle here may be industrious enough to work their way up the promotion ladder.

    An interesting GDP growth comparison is the UK versus the Republic of Ireland whilst there is a difference in the size of the countries and the fact they are still in the EU they seem to be getting some things right. I suppose the figure must give the Scottish Nationalists food for thought.

    The Prime Minister talks of not aligning with any EU Laws, as the UK has been a member of the European Union since it’s inception these are laws which we have had a role, sometimes a significant one, in crafting.

    The United Kingdom has many great features, many world class products and scope for growth.

    What is missing is a Government that recognises that and is capable of capitalising on it. So really the fault lies with all of us because we pay so little attention to Political choice we get Governments that are indifferent to our future. They only look as far as the next election.

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