There has been much fuss about last week’s gathering at Ditchley Park to discuss the UK’s relationship with the EU. “The full sell-out of Brexit is underway,” tweeted Nigel Farage. David Frost, the former Brexit negotiator, said that the conference was “a further piece of evidence that many in our political and business establishment want to unravel the deals we did to exit the EU in 2020”. Frost, of course, has long been calling for the unravelling of one aspect of the deal we did to exit the EU, namely the Northern Ireland protocol. Briefings from the government suggest that a deal will soon be reached but there may be insufficient unravelling for Frost’s taste.
The event at Ditchley Park, a country house, involved both those who favoured Remain and Leave in 2016. If any consensus emerged from the discussions, it would have been along the lines of wanting “incremental improvements” to UK-EU relations, to use the phrase of the former Conservative Europe minister David Lidington, one of the participants. To the extent that there is any significance to the event, it is the possibility of a Brexit truce, rather than a Brexit betrayal, that should concern us.
It has long been the case that the Labour Party is nervous of reopening the issue of Brexit. It needs the votes of Red Wall leavers and fears a Tory campaign to “keep Brexit done”. David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, who was present at Ditchley Park, has set out ways in which UK-EU relations can be improved but these very much fall into the category of incremental improvements.
The most intriguing attendee was Michael Gove. He was a senior figure in the Leave campaign but was also a pragmatist during the Brexit quagmire of 2018-19. Gove’s thinking then (and I assume now), was that the biggest risk to Brexit was for it to demonstrably do harm to the UK. He was determined to avoid inflicting a no-deal Brexit not just because of the immediate damage it would do but because he believed that the ensuing chaos would have put Brexit as a whole at risk. Better, in Gove’s opinion, to take the long view and for the UK to diverge gradually from the EU, taking advantage of the “benefits of Brexit” as and when such benefits became clear.
There is no reason to think Gove’s approach has changed. His view is that to secure Brexit, therefore, the priority should be to mitigate the problems created by leaving the EU, not rush into delivering Brexit purity.
It is in this context that one can start to see how some common ground can be found between the government wanting to avoid further economic damage and the opposition wanting to neutralise a political vulnerability. Both sides know that the current arrangements are not working; both sides believe that incremental improvements are in their political interests. A Brexit truce looks in the offing.
Compared with everything that we have gone through in the last seven years, it is welcome that there is an acceptance of trade-offs and compromises and a cooling of the temperature. A bit more of this four years ago and our recent history may have turned out very differently. As Martin Fletcher pointed out, those involved in the Ditchley Park exercise, and Gove in particular, deserve praise.
But will it work? Is it possible that incremental improvements – a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol and (assuming the EU agrees) greater co-operation on science and financial services – will win sufficient cross-party support that a new consensus can be formed? And will any Brexit truce last?
The immediate threat to any truce, of course, comes from the Brexit hardliners. Their reaction to the Ditchley Park reports shows that they will always be quick to cry betrayal. They reject Gove’s gradualist approach. Their view is that the EU’s gravitational pull is strong and if the UK is not determinedly escaping its orbit it will be pulled back. This explains the support for the ludicrous Retained EU Law Bill, which would review or revoke around 4,000 European laws. It creates uncertainty for businesses and grants the executive extraordinary legislative powers but, they hope, also makes it harder for future UK governments to converge with the EU.
There is also a political calculation. For some constituencies, a Brexit truce is the last thing the Tories need. Never mind convergence with the EU, it is Conservative convergence with Labour on this issue that will concern many Tory MPs reliant on Leave voters. A new pragmatism on Europe requires Rishi Sunak to confront some of his parliamentary colleagues.
Keir Starmer’s problem is likely to emerge over a longer period. The Labour leader’s challenge is not that a truce involves too close a relationship with the EU but that it is not close enough. However sensible these incremental improvements may be, they will not be economically transformative. Trade will still involve greater friction than it did, the UK will still be a less attractive location for investment than it was, the point of Brexit will, if anything, prove to be even more elusive.
The UK-EU relationship will cease to deteriorate and there will be small but tangible improvements on the current circumstances. But, after Starmer has won office, this is unlikely to be good enough for those truly ambitious for the UK economy. It may be the Brexiteers who will try to prevent a truce being declared but, assuming they fail, it will be those who want a closer relationship with the EU that will bring any truce to an end.