STEPHEN GLOVER: I find it hard to believe this was an innocent meeting whose only purpose was to apply a little tender loving care to the Brexit process
Some people will say there is nothing very sinister about the cross-party pow-wow about Brexit which took place in the beautiful surroundings of Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire last Thursday and Friday.
The subject of the meeting — ‘How can we make Brexit work better with our neighbours in Europe?’ — sounds inoffensive. Even the most fervent Leaver is unlikely to claim that Brexit has so far been a roaring success.
Moreover, the presence at the meeting of stalwart Leavers such as former Labour MP Gisela Stuart and ex-Tory leader Michael Howard may reassure some people that this was an innocuous gathering, whose only purpose was to apply a little oil to the nuts and bolts of our relations with our European neighbours.
If there were no more to it than that, there could be no reasonable grounds for objection. Why not have an informed discussion about how to make Brexit work better?
But if one looks a little closer, and considers both the secrecy of the event and the background of some of the participants, things appear less straightforward.
The meeting was chaired by the Labour svengali and former minister, Peter Mandelson (pictured), who almost outdoes Tory grandee Michael Heseltine in his longing not only to rejoin the single market but also the European Union as soon as possible
Without a leak to the Observer newspaper, nobody would know about the meeting. The Brexit vote was in part an expression by millions of people of their reservations about our entitled ruling class. The cosy get-together at Ditchley will have only confirmed their suspicions.
The meeting was chaired by the Labour svengali and former minister, Peter Mandelson, who almost outdoes Tory grandee Michael Heseltine in his longing not only to rejoin the single market but also the European Union as soon as possible.
Also present was Olly Robbins, a former European federalist who cut his teeth in the Foreign Office. He was Theresa May’s flaccid lead negotiator during negotiations with the EU when Britain fatally yielded to several of Brussels’s demands, not least over the Northern Ireland backstop.
Sir Olly was recently linked to a top job with Labour. If he takes this up, he will be able to work cheek by jowl with the party’s foreign affairs spokesman, David Lammy, another passionate Remainer who was at the Ditchley shindig.
Nor am I greatly reassured by the presence of the sinuous Michael Gove, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign in 2016. Much as I like Mr Gove and admire his brainpower, I wouldn’t embark on a long and arduous expedition in his company with a single water bottle.
Was the Ditchley gathering a stitch-up by the British Establishment in one of its periodic fits of funk? Despite the inclusion of apparently unapologetic Leavers, was its true objective to devise ways of easing us back into the EU? Were Brexiteers present playing the role of Stalin’s ‘useful idiots’?
Whatever the answers to these questions, I find it very hard to buy the line that this was an innocent meeting whose only purpose was apply a little tender loving care to the Brexit process.
In the first place, the contention that Brexit isn’t working should be examined with more rigour than it has been. We left the EU on January 31, 2020, but it wasn’t until January 1, 2021, that Britain withdrew from the bloc’s trading arrangements.
I make that just over two years ago. That doesn’t seem a very long time to judge whether or not a revolutionary departure for this country is going to turn out to be a success.
Those two years happen to have been blighted by a couple of unforeseen scourges. One was the pandemic, at which the Government chose to throw more money than now seems wise. It also led to half a million people leaving the workforce, with adverse consequences for the economy.
Much as I like Michael Gove (pictured) and admire his brainpower, I wouldn’t embark on a long and arduous expedition in his company with a single water bottle
Then came the second calamity of the energy crisis, caused by the war in Ukraine. It has blown a further hole in the Government’s finances, besides occupying ministers who might in other circumstances have had more time to think of how Britain can best capitalise on Brexit.
The truth is that it’s impossible to disentangle the ill-effects of the pandemic and of the energy crisis from any bad consequences that may have come from leaving the EU. Remainers are of course anxious to blame all our difficulties on Brexit.
It is perfectly true that last year our trade deficit widened alarmingly. Though at one stage our exports to the EU reached record levels because we have been sending gas to the Continent, imports from the whole world rose even faster.
There have been countless complaints by British exporting companies about red tape on the part of Brussels. This problem must obviously be addressed by the Government. If there is an agreement with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol, some of the barriers should be removed.
UK exporters have also so far failed to take advantage of markets outside the EU by increasing exports, notably to countries with which we have signed trade agreements.
After we joined the Common Market in 1973, British companies found it challenging to adapt to new European standards. In a similar way, many exporters are now having difficulty in coming to terms with a post-EU world.
It is, as I say, still very early days — certainly far too early, after we have been buffeted by rough winds that have nothing to do with Brexit, to draw overarching conclusions.
That said, an open conference — not a secret get-together in an Oxfordshire country house — about how best to exploit the potential of Brexit would be an excellent idea.
For if Brexit isn’t working as well as it should, one major culprit is undoubtedly a timid and unimaginative British Government, which regards being outside the EU as more of a burden than an opportunity. When did you last hear Rishi Sunak — who voted Leave — wax lyrical about Brexit?
If Britain is going to prosper outside the EU, it must offer lower taxes and fewer regulations than the bloc from which it has separated. In other words, we must use our regained sovereignty to do things differently.
Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no evidence that this is happening. Without a last-minute change of mind, corporation tax will increase from 19 to 25 per cent in April. No major EU country is planning similar rises. Britain will have its highest ever peacetime tax burden.
Why should British and foreign companies make large investments in Britain if taxation here is more onerous than in many other EU counties? The answer is that they probably won’t.
Last week came the appalling news that the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca has decided to build a £320 million new plant in Ireland, where corporation tax is 15 per cent, rather than in the UK.
The company’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, blamed the high cost of doing business here, saying that Britain’s ‘discouraging’ taxes were behind the decision to have a new plant in Ireland.
What unbelievable foolishness. One could literally weep. The Government might as well put up a sign saying: ‘Come to Brexit Britain, and pay much higher taxes.’
Can I suggest that, instead of breaking bread with people who want us back in the EU, Michael Gove seeks a meeting with Rishi Sunak and the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt?
His message to them should be that Brexit will work — but only if this Government stops putting roadblocks in its way.
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