Was this secret summit the first tentative step towards reversing the unmitigated disaster that is Brexit? We can only hope, writes Bremain Chair Sue Wilson MBE for West England Bylines.
On Thursday and Friday last week (9-10 February), a cross-party ‘secret summit’ on Brexit was held at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire. The meeting, which included high-level politicians from both Remain and Leave camps, as well as prominent businessmen, was so ‘secret’ that by Sunday it was all over mainstream media.
The meeting was entitled: “How can we make Brexit work better with our neighbours in Europe?” In an introductory statement, it was acknowledged that “so far the UK has not yet found its way forward outside the EU”. Not only that, but Brexit is “acting as a drag on our growth and inhibiting the UK’s potential”.
The news brought hope to pro-Europeans that perhaps, at last, politicians of all persuasions were willing to discuss the failings of Brexit, and our future relationship with Europe, with some openness and honesty. Brexiteers, on the other hand, were screaming “sell-out”.
Brexit is crumbling.
Only pride and embarrassment now stand between us and the admission that the best possible future for the UK lies in #RejoinEU. @UKLabour are you listening?
Revealed: secret cross-party summit held to confront failings of Brexit. https://t.co/4irtvMHW0l
— Ted Page #FBPE #FBPA #RejoinEU (@wild_ted) February 12, 2023
Brexit-supporting backbench MP, John Redwood, was quick to complain on Twitter. “Instead of talking of sell-out at private conferences”, he said, “the UK establishment needs to complete Brexit and use its freedoms.” He added that the government should pass the Protocol bill to make Northern Ireland fully part of the UK and in order to “take back full control of our fish for starters”. Not sure what he had in mind for the main course.
Former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, said the “full sellout of Brexit was under way”, adding that the Tory party had “never believed in it”. Deputy Chairman of the ERG, David Jones, said the fact that the meeting was held in secret raised suspicions that the aim was to have “closer constitutional links” with Europe. Let’s hope so!
"Lord Frost last night warned of a plot to undermine Brexit after leading Remainers held a secret summit on EU relations."
And leading Brexiters, including Gove and Gisela Stuart. But presumably that detail doesn't fit Frostie the no-man's narrative… https://t.co/NLq9xhpZoE
— Edwin Hayward 🦄 🗡 (@edwinhayward) February 12, 2023
Brexit is unravelling, says Frost
Despite walking away from his Brexit role, and taking no responsibility for his wonderful, then awful, Brexit deal, Lord Frost is never one to miss an opportunity to supply unwanted advice and comment. Again. Ad infinitum.
Frost accused those senior politicians taking part – such as Michael Gove, David Lammy, Peter Mandelson and David Liddington – of wanting to “unravel the deals we did to exit the EU in 2020” and to “stay shadowing the EU instead”. He said that the government, which had been elected with a huge Brexit mandate, needed to “fully and enthusiastically embrace” the advantages of Brexit, adding that “Brexit doesn’t need ‘fixing’”.
Despite his former – and now hard to believe Remainer – beliefs, Frost spends a lot of effort looking for ways to criticise those tasked with delivering Brexit. If he spent half as much time searching for mythical Brexit benefits, he might be more useful. Or at least, more muted.
The Downing Street position
A spokesman for Downing Street stated that PM Rishi Sunak had been unaware of the summit meeting held last week. It was a response that surprised no one as Sunak often seems ‘unaware’ of activities going on right under his nose. On a trip to Oldham, Sunak said he was “proud to vote for Brexit” and that, as PM, he was “keen to make sure we deliver the benefits”. Whatever they may be. If he knows, he’s not telling.
With the UK and EU edging closer to an agreement, and Sunak saying little about his plans for the controversial Protocol Bill, no doubt Lord Frost, the ERG and Brexiteers will be watching him closely for further signs of “unravelling”. They are also pushing for the tearing up of thousands of EU laws, under the Retained EU Law bill.
Sunak may try to give with one hand and take with the other, in an effort to please all parties – not least US President Biden – over Brexit and the Protocol. But this will just further cement opinion that he is ineffective and indecisive.
What did the summit achieve?
If the meeting itself didn’t stay secret for long, the outcome of the discussions may take longer to surface. A confidential source described the meeting as “constructive”, saying that the “main thrust of it was that Britain is losing out, that Brexit it not delivering, our economy is in a weak position.”
The aim was to move on “from Leave and Remain”, to discuss “the issues we now have to face” and how to get into “the best position” for having a conversation with the EU about changes to the UK-EU trade and cooperation agreement. That agreement is subject to renewal, revision or termination every five years. The current deal expires, and is up for renegotiation, in 2025, so getting into the “best position” soon is vital.
“Secret cross-party summit held to confront failings of Brexit”
Siri, show me a headline that encapsulates the weapons-grade idiocy of Brexit and the cynicism of politicians willing to carry on damaging the country because they dare not admit how horrendously they’ve failed us.
— sarah murphy (@13sarahmurphy) February 11, 2023
While it’s shocking that it has taken this long, the fact that Tory and Labour politicians – on both sides of the Brexit debate – are now having grown-up conversations (we assume), is a step forward. Considering the extensive and obvious damage that Brexit has wreaked, better late than never.
However, there is still a long way to travel. Despite the participants seeming acceptance that Brexit is failing, and a huge shift in public opinion, both Tories and Labour still seem to want to “make Brexit work”. They can’t.
They can tinker around the edges. They can work more closely with Europe where there is common ground. They can even work together to improve the Protocol. But they cannot “make Brexit work”.
Until there is a ‘secret summit’ to discuss re-joining the Single Market, the Customs Union or the EU itself, then they are merely offering a sticking plaster solution when what’s needed is major surgery.
Nice try. Good start. Now get on with it!