Richard North, 23/10/2017  

The single most dominant feature of the Brexit "debate" is the misplaced belief that a "no deal" scenario is a tenable option for the UK. Any responsible person, knowing the most likely outcome should be warning against it and doing their utmost to prevent it happening.

That should especially apply to members of the government who, in theory at least, should be devoting their energies to protecting and furthering the national interest.

From the Prime Minister downwards, however, we have members of this government who are failing in their most basic duties in the most spectacularly irresponsible manner. And should they be allowed to continue, the consequences could – and most likely will– be devastating.

We are, therefore, in the utterly bizarre situation where the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, can go on national television, in the form of Peston On Sunday, and blithely inform us all that he was not scared by the idea of "no deal", which would lead to a default to World Trade Organisation trading terms.

This malign fool went on to say that, "If we have no deal and we trade on current WTO terms, that’s the basis not only that Britain trades with countries like the United States, but that the EU trades with the rest of the world in most circumstances". Thus, he declared, "it's not exactly a nightmare scenario".

The thing is that Fox knows that his claim is false – that it's a lie. He has been briefed personally by senior members of the Civil Service, orally and in writing. And, less than eight months ago, one of the most senior civil servants dealing with Brexit at the time, told the Brexit select committee that no major economy traded with the EU solely on World Trade Organisation terms.

This was Sir Ivan Rogers, a man soon to resign but whose evidence is on the record. Liam Fox has no business ignoring it and substituting his own ignorance. As a man – a private individual – he is entitled to express his own opinion but, as a Secretary of State, he is not. It is his duty to express the truth, in defence of his own country and the national interest.

Further, the lie that he promulgates is easily countered. The European Union treaty data database is in the public domain and is easily accessible online and the summary of agreements is listed here. You can see the agreements between the EU and the United States of America listed from page 322, and China from page 74.

Even if Dr Fox hadn't been told earlier about the proper situation, therefore, his staff should have had no trouble finding out. All they had to do is look up one website, and all the information they need is there. He has no business not knowing.

Whether trading nations resort to WTO rules and rely exclusively on them in their dealings with the EU is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact – and the facts say, as Ivan Rogers attested, that no major economy trades with the EU solely on WTO terms. Knowingly to assert otherwise is a lie. And there should be nobody in the debate who does not know where the truth ends and the lie starts.

Yet, joining in the lie are lesser politicians, including the likes of John Redwood, Peter Lilley, Owen Paterson, Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Julian Lewis, Desmond Swayne and Kate Hoey. And behind the lying politicians are the ranks of campaign groups and the think tanks which are a nothing but a disgrace.

But, instead of calling them out, the media are giving them a free pass. Thus, it turns out that the media are as culpable as the politicians and their fellow-travellers. Nor can they disclaim responsibility.

In this country, journalists claim special status and privileges, including access to ministers. Supposedly on behalf of the public and in the interests of democracy, they demand the right to question members of the government, and expect answers from them.

With rights and privileges come responsibilities. So, when we have in Liam Fox a Secretary of State knowingly lying on national television, it is up to journalists such as Robert Peston, to recognise the lie and to call him out. And it is not as if Peston is a novice. He's ITV's political editor and has the resources of that organisation at his command. It is his job to deploy those resources effectively. But when it came to it, with Liam Fox sitting across from him uttering his lie, Peston was not up to the job. This vacuous little man sucked up the lie and moved on without even raising an eyebrow.

It was once the case where a deliberate lie was a resignation matter but now, it seems, there's safety in numbers, while rank brings with it privilege of immunity, the freedom to lie in public while journalists nod sagely as truth flies out the window.

Peston is, of course, not the only one to fail. Most recently we had Liam Halligan, the Telegraph's economic editor, both in the Telegraph and the Spectator, perpetrating the WTO lie. He should be ashamed of himself and the media outlets who publish his lies should be taken to task.

Such is the importance of this issue that standing on the sidelines as neutral observers should not be an option. The media have got too used to putting opposing sides together, relying on the conflict for their stories and entertainment, but this is an issue where one side has crossed the line. The media needs to stand up and be counted, even – or especially – when ministers perpetrate the lie. If they do not, they are complicit in the lie.

In terms of its own work, the media also needs to up its game. The amateurishness of the Guardian in this piece stands as testament to its inability to perform even the most basic of fact checking.

However, one should not bother with the Independent Press Standards Organisation. It takes the view that, as long as a journalist couches his lie as an "opinion", he is entitled to lie. The supposedly "independent regulator" will not intervene.

Even the opposition parties fail to perform. So keen to attack the government on many other issues, when they are handed an egregious lie, they are strangely mute.

This single issue, therefore, is becoming a fault line in contemporary politics. Instead of a free and fair debate, in which all sides try to stick to the facts, we have a group which is quite deliberately and consistently lying – and no one does anything. We are seeing the ultimate debasement of the political process, where the lie becomes common and acceptable currency of debate.

In many respects, this is the hallmark of decadence – when society is no longer able to judge right from wrong, and malpractice becomes the unremarkable norm. But, for all that, a lie is still a lie. To assert that countries such as the US and China trade with the EU (solely) on WTO terms is a lie.

Repetition won't make it any different and increasing the numbers telling it won't make it true. A large group of people telling a lie is just a large group of people telling a lie. However they may rationalise it, Fox and his friends are liars.

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