Last week, a leading group of British politicians – from past and present – gathered for an apparently secret conference in a quaint, picturesque Oxford country house.
According to leaked documents it was a two-day affair and its guiding questions the observer, was: “How can we make Brexit work better with our neighbors in Europe?” The meeting’s mission statement pointed to the influence of rebellious Brexit-scepticism on British politics, with the issue of post-Brexit “failure” still taboo in government circles.
So, many were shocked to learn that attendees at the “make Brexit work” “private” summit included Michael Gove, a cabinet minister and lead-lever in the 2016 EU referendum; former Conservative Party leader and Brexiteer Michael Howard; Vote Leave’s former co-chair and crossbench peer, Gisela Stewart; and one-time Conservative chancellor, Norman Lamont. They were joined by a number of high-profile Labor politicians, including Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy; Shadow Defense Secretary, David Healey; and former New Labor cabinet minister and Prime Minister Machiavelli, Peter Mandelson. No stranger to secrecy, Mandelson was perhaps surprisingly tasked with the task.
This secret, cross-party gathering stands out as a significant moment in the still-untold story of Brexit. Held in Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, its nature as a joint Labor and Conservative initiative suggests some new thinking in our post-Brexit political system. Bipartisanship over Brexit was met with much derision by Theresa May in 2019, with a leading government figure in Gove now willing to engage with Labor on the EU, arguably showing how much the terms of the debate have shifted.
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The the observer Scoop suggests that the meeting itself was disciplined and focused. A source indicated that “the main emphasis was that Britain is losing, that Brexit is not delivering”, with the summit document further detailing that there is a “clear British strategic interest in a productive and close relationship”. The prevalence of convergence on this issue deserves careful consideration, especially in such Brexit-doubtful conditions.
Curiously, the conference appears to have been conducted on fundamentally antagonistic political terms. Forged at the crossroads of post-Brexit cross-party thinking, its shrouded secrecy ensured its work was undisturbed by the churning of the news cycle and the inroads of partisan politics. After seven years of steamrolling stand-off, it may all be evidence that post-Brexit politics is fraying in both Brexit-accepting and Brexit-critical terms.
For Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour, this is good news. Since 2020, Sir Keir has taken a roundly pragmatic approach to Brexit, rejecting calls to “rejoin” while committing his party to a 2025 review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) as a vehicle to pursue incremental changes to the UK-EU. Relationship Electively, Starmer sees learning to think and speak like a Brexiteer as an important step in restoring Red Wall’s trust. Intending to win over pro-Brexit voters in a landslide to the Conservatives in 2019, Starmer wants to “work” Brexit on Labor’s terms, “taking back control” in the process.
That “making Brexit work” was the guiding principle of last week’s secret Brexit summit may suggest that Sir Keir is winning the post-Brexit argument, even among some in government. Saying, the observerA report of its secret summit follows Bloomberg, which suggested closer UK-EU relations were being debated by civil servants on defence, immigration and “economic statecraft including issues such as trade, energy and international standards”. The political trajectory from both the Government and Labor appears to be towards a closer post-Brexit relationship.
Of course, detractors of this new approach to government remain – including the Brexit “purists” of the European Research Group (ERG) and the Farage-types of Reform UK (the restyled Brexit Party).
A report on a secret “soft-Brexit” summit, attended by former second referendum supporters and chaired by New Labour’s “prince of darkness” Mandelson, covers all the tropes of an anti-Brexit conspiracy. Appropriately, the Ditchley Park plot has been condemned by Sir Ian Duncan Smith, who labeled the secret conference “a classic Mandlesonian attempt to manipulate the process”. The Daily letter Monday’s coverage was led by a warning from former chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost that a “secret plot” was underway to subvert the 2016 referendum.
This reaction underlines the dynamics of a new political divide, with conservative Brexit “pragmatists”, potentially supported by Labour, now battling ideological “purists” in the ERG and Reform UK. The aftermath created a media circus and open briefing war between Conservative MPs. Farage, inevitably, offers little advice from him GB News pulpit
We saw this dynamic takeover of the Conservative Party in November, amid rumors that the government was pursuing a “Swiss-style” deal with the European Union. And just like the “Swiss-style” treaty debate, the debacle of the secret summit drew condemnation and immediate rejection from those in government. But Sunak’s suggestion that he now knows about Shikhar will not remedy the destructive “puritanist”-“pragmatist” spiral, as the ERG becomes increasingly suspicious of the motives of the government and its leading figures.
At every turn, the Brexit purist versus Brexit pragmatist divide seems difficult.
For the Conservative Party, this is the crucial point. Recent history shows the success of the Eurosceptic wing in molding and conditioning government policy; It means that if Sunak is forced into a showdown with his MPs – amid a Faragit furor over Brexit betrayal – the prime minister could risk destroying any political capital he has left.
Indeed, the ERG sees ideological purity as its legacy after being involved in the Brexit conflict from 2016-2019. No conference chaired by Peter Mandelson will change that. Informed by an ever-hardening siege mentality, the secretive summit will only heighten the groups’ anxiety.
In the coming weeks, acrimonious debate over a potential Northern Ireland protocol resolution could force the Brexit pragmatist vs. Brexit purist divide back to center stage in British politics. Expect the rhetoric to rise significantly if Sunak reaches a settlement deemed unsatisfactory by the ERG — especially if Sir Keir, as Labor has suggested, realistically backs the new deal.