Professor Chris Grey on the ongoing battle between rapprochement and repetition in UK-EU relations, what reactions to Ditchley reveal and why re-joiners should avoid their own ‘betrayal’ narrative.
I n the book I wrote about Brexit I anticipated (pp. 275-278) two broad scenarios for how the immediate future would develop once the realities of Brexit began to be felt (the book itself ended with the end of the transition period). These scenarios weren’t about ‘staying out’ versus ‘re-joining’, though they might eventually have implications for that, but about different ways of ‘being out’.
In the first scenario, the bitter domestic debate and the corresponding antagonism towards the EU would gradually die down. The inescapable facts of geographical proximity and of economic and regulatory interdependence would normalize the UK-EU relationship, in that it would come to be viewed as a rather dull issue to be approached in pragmatic terms, and seen through the prism of UK strategic interests rather than Brexit per se. The first concrete outcome of that would come with making use of the provisions within the existing Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to deepen it as regards both trade and security.
In the second scenario, the UK would be stuck in a perpetual Brexit ‘Groundhog Day’. The approach to relations with the EU would be one of permanent hostility, resentment and suspicion. And there would be a similar hostility to attempts from the supposed ‘Establishment’ and ‘liberal elite’ to improve those relations. The economic damage of Brexit would be blamed on ‘EU punishment’ rather than Brexit itself, and the Referendum vote would continue to be used as a supposed mandate for ever-greater divergence from the EU and even as a mandate for a “Brexit 2.0” of leaving the ECHR.
‘Scenario one’ might be called one of ‘rapprochement’ or perhaps ‘amelioration’, and ‘scenario two’ might be called one of ‘repetition’ or even ‘intensification’.
Elements of both of them have been on display last week. That is because we are now witnessing, on a daily basis, a battle that will determine which, if either, of these scenarios will prevail as the consensus view of the UK polity, broadly conceived.
It is a battle played out in contestations over the nature and extent of Brexit damage, over specific post-Brexit policies including the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Retained EU Law Bill, in all the less visible interchanges between interest groups and the government over post-Brexit funding schemes or regulatory regimes, and in increasingly vociferous denunciations of the ECHR, especially in the context of ‘the small boats crisis’.
The current state of play
By the ‘UK polity, broadly conceived’, I mean the nexus of political parties and political actors, civil society organizations, the commentariat and media, including social media, and public opinion. I stress that, because it is not, as some seem to think, simply about what the opinion polls say, important as that is. Public opinion is certainly a necessary condition in settling which scenario emerges, but it is not a sufficient one.
It is indeed the case that public opinion is settling towards the first scenario. Some 47% (and 30% of leave voters) want a closer relationship with the EU, though what is meant by ‘closer’ is not homogenous, with just 14% (and 18% of leave voters) wanting it to be more distant than at present. That is still not a majority, but it is a very strong lead. It is likely that political actors, in the sense of business groups, trade unions and numerous lobbying groups, are even more united in favouring scenario one, as evidenced for example by the many signatories to a letter calling on the government to abandon the Retained EU Law Bill.
However, the commentariat and media remain as split as ever, and scenario two still has enthusiastic support in, for example, the pages of the Telegraph, Mail and Express. There has been some change in the way that is expressed, though, with the tone becoming notably more defensive as the evidence of Brexit damage has mounted and as commentators realize they are losing the battle of the narrative and, with it, public support.
As for the government, in line with my piece last week it is hopelessly stuck. It’s clear that there are elements, including Rishi Sunak himself, which see the need for something like the first scenario on grounds of economic and political pragmatism. That is evident in numerous reports that Sunak wants a resolution on the Northern Ireland Protocol, but the fix he is in is reflected by other reports saying he has been “sitting on” an agreed deal for the last week, presumably for fear of the Brexit Ultras’ reaction. That looks like the final gasp of what for a long time seems to have been a policy of hoping that ‘something will turn up’. It hasn’t, and it’s likely he’ll find out next week what that reaction will be: already their opposition is growing louder.
The same desire for rapprochement is also evident in the government’s decision not to continue to contest the legal challenge to its treatment of EU citizens with pre-settled status and, in a more general way, in the Bloomberg report last week that Sunak has asked senior ministers and officials to draw up plans for a less acrimonious relationship with the EU. But, again, the same report highlighted the risk of a backlash to any such plans from the Ultras. And it’s not even as if the government itself has a coherent approach to EU relations since, in other reports last week, there are plans to “snub” the EU Horizon science funding programme, itself delayed purely because of the Protocol row.
Overall, whilst there may be some impetus to scenario one under Sunak, and he may even make some headway, there is no possibility of it becoming the settled consensus under this government. On the other hand, all the other political parties, apart from the Reform Party and DUP, are supportive of, at the very least, scenario one and certainly opposed to scenario two. The Labour Party, in particular, has effectively made scenario one its policy. So it does seem likely that, assuming a Labour election win, the next government will seek to enact it.
However, it’s crucial to understand that this would be a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for it actually happening. The key point is the earlier point that what is at issue is a consensus across the UK polity. Such a consensus doesn’t mean total agreement, which is never going to happen anyway. Instead, it means scenario one dominating, and support for scenario two becoming the province of marginal and fringe actors in politics and the media. In particular, creating a consensus around scenario one will need significant buy-in from at least some who supported Brexit as well as from those who opposed it.
The Ditchley Park meeting
From that point of view, reports of a “secret” meeting held at the end of last week at Ditchley Park to “discuss the failings of Brexit and how to remedy them in the national interest” was an interesting development. The meeting brought together Brexiters (including Tories Michael Gove, Michael Howard and Norman Lamont, and Labour’s Gisela Stuart who co-chaired Vote Leave) and erstwhile remainers (including Labour’s David Lammy and Peter Mandelson, and the Tory David Lidington), as well as several former civil servants and some business leaders.
I call it ‘interesting’ not because it is going to yield anything in the way of concrete consequences, but because it is a tiny example, and so far as I know the first of its kind, of what a wider and long-term process of consensus-building for scenario one would look like. It is also, as Martin Fletcher of the New Statesman observes, perhaps the first time that as prominent a Brexiter as Gove has come anywhere close to acknowledging the failures of Brexit. Not that it should be over-stated: Gove, unlike those Labour MPs who attended, did so without the knowledge or consent of his party leader.
That such a consensus is very far from being in the offing is also shown by the “near-hysterical responses” to news of the meeting. The most predictable came from Nigel Farage, with his autonomic reflex moan that “the full sell-out of Brexit is underway”. The Brexiter press took the same approach. You have to wonder just how often something can be sold out before there ceases to be anything left to betray. Brexiters like Sherelle Jacobs in the Telegraph perhaps recognize this, but she draws the equally ludicrous conclusion that “Brexit was finally condemned to death in the gilded splendour of Ditchley Park”!
The Mail was sufficiently infuriated to run three items about the meeting – a report, an editorial, and a comment article by Steven Glover. Inevitably, the main attacks were multiple versions of the line that this was “a cynical remainer plot to derail Brexit”, but it was a line which made little sense, precisely because of the presence of “apparently unapologetic leavers” (though note the implied question raised by the word ‘apparently’) like “sinuous” Michael Gove (again, note the language: no one can fault tabloid journalists on their capacity to insinuate meaning). Nor could it be squared with the fact that neither re-joining the EU nor re-joining the single market were on the agenda. Indeed, all that was on the agenda was precisely the kind of rapprochement that I have called ‘scenario one’.
The logic of some of the Mail’s secondary lines of attack was also rather hard to follow. Apparently, the secret nature of the meeting was evidence of its sinister intent, but so too was the fact that the leak of it having been held had appeared in the “Europhile Observer”. So was the cunning plot to conceal the meeting’s existence or to reveal it? Equally, David Frost ponderously warning, like a lumpen schoolboy who has diligently memorized the textbook without understanding its meaning, that the “establishment want to unravel the deals we did in 2020” was at odds with his own perpetual insistence that the Protocol, which is a key part of those deals, is not sacrosanct and, indeed, should be ‘unravelled’.
Most splenetic of all was someone called Carol Malone on GB News, who delivered a diatribe about “the anti-democratic treacherous elites” who by meeting to discuss how to make Brexit work better had apparently “spat on democracy and spat on the British people”. Goodness knows how unhinged she would have been had the meeting been a discussion of how to abandon Brexit altogether.
Perhaps less predictable were the negative reactions* from some of those who are anti-Brexit, although Martin Fletcher, referred to earlier, gave a qualified positive response and others were willing to give it a very cautious welcome. But some were almost as suspicious of the secrecy as the Brexiters, though it’s surely obvious that this was precisely because of the sensitivity of holding such a meeting, a sensitivity amply demonstrated by the ferocious response to its disclosure. In any case, whilst it is true the meeting wasn’t publicized by Ditchley Park, it wasn’t quite the conspiratorial event some depict it to be. To my mind, the level of confidentiality was sensible rather than sinister although, of course, ultimately such conversations will have to be public if a consensus for scenario one is to be created.
Many comments were disdainful of the lack of representation from any party other than Tories and Labour, or from trade unions and lobby groups. That’s a reasonable criticism, and, again, ultimately consensus-building would need a broader base, but it’s not indefensible to have a narrow group for what was widely recognized to be an unprecedented meeting, and one which would seem to have been very exploratory in nature.
In particular, some of these comments about lack of inclusiveness seemed to assume that the meeting had some kind of official or semi-official status that would, or could, give rise to a new national ‘plan’. Perhaps that was encouraged by the misleading reporting of the meeting as being a ‘Summit’. At all events it is obviously nonsense: such a meeting has no power at all, and certainly isn’t the basis of some kind of cross-party government or policy initiative. For that reason, similar comments about the lack of EU involvement were wide of the mark. The entire significance of the meeting, such as it is, lies in it (conceivably) being a tiny first step towards, specifically, domestic consensus-building around a very modest agenda.
Other comments jeered at precisely that modesty, insisting that no discussion was worthwhile that did not have re-joining the EU, or at least the single market, on the agenda. This is almost the mirror-image of the Brexiters’ criticisms, in that whereas they falsely assert that this was the real agenda and it was an attempt to sell out leavers, the re-join critics dismiss it for not having this agenda and being an attempt to sell out remainers.
Underlying this is what I am increasingly coming to see as almost as big a block to ‘scenario one’ as that of the Brexit Ultras – the insistence by some that re-joining is something that will be quickly and easily achieved. I don’t think that is so, for the reasons I discussed in a video last week as a guest of Federal Trust (again, the comments beneath are instructive). But, whether I am right or wrong, the key point is that if re-joining is going to happen in whatever timescale, a necessary condition for it will be the creation of scenario one rather than scenario two. If scenario two becomes dominant, then re-joining will most certainly not happen. If scenario one takes hold then re-joining is by no means assured, but it becomes possible.
The danger, then, is that if even the tiniest step taken towards scenario one is dismissed out-of-hand by re-joiners and dismissed out-of-hand by Brexiters, then it will never happen. By insisting that only their preferred perfect outcome is acceptable, re-joiners, unwittingly no doubt, aid Brexiters in their rejection of it. In turn this makes it easier for scenario two to emerge. I don’t mean by this that re-joiners should give up on campaigning for their preferred outcome, just that they make that outcome much harder to achieve if they insist that anything other than the near-immediate delivery of that outcome is pointless or even, in a kind of reversal of the standard Brexiter line, a ‘betrayal’.
Commenting on reactions to the Ditchley Park meeting from “annoyed Remainers and EU commentators”, Helene von Bismarck, an eminent German historian specializing in Britain’s international relations, wrote, “Too little, too late, they say. I am impatient too, but seriously, where do you want to start? If nothing except a Time Machine transporting you back to 2015 will make you happy, the future is bleak”. She also, rightly, pointed out that the meeting doesn’t constitute any kind of a turning point but at least – or at best – part of a process of facing up to the realities of Brexit.
That doesn’t, of course, mean that the agenda of that meeting did, in itself, face those realities. Gerhard Schnyder, in his discussion of it on his latest Brexit Impact Tracker is also absolutely right to say that:
“… eventually, the country will have to come together and heal the deep wounds Brexit has inflicted on the British body politic. But not on any terms. The risk is that if ‘moving on’ happens without a proper analysis of why Brexit took place and why it was never going to work, the ideas that drove the Brexit fringe of the UK’s political sphere will continue to cast their long shadows over the inevitable process of softening hard Brexit.”
However, that is not going to happen in one moment of revelation. The ‘proper analysis’ already exists; the political issue is to establish it as a consensus, which means enrolling at least some committed and leading Brexiters through a repudiation of their entrenched beliefs. That will take time and patience.
One implication of this could just conceivably be imminent. Although it is unlikely, suppose that Sunak decided that the only way of securing the deal with the EU to revise the Protocol was to take up Keir Starmer’s offer of Labour support, or even just threaten to do so to bring his rebels into line? If so, re-joiners should resist the temptation to denounce Labour for ‘propping up’ Brexit and instead see it as a significant move towards creating scenario one through a cross-party agreement that marginalizes the Brexit Ultras and undermines their desire for scenario two.
A battle for high stakes
The stakes here are very high. Each of the scenarios I sketched has very different consequences. For scenario one, rapprochement and amelioration lead to ‘restoration’, by which I don’t, or don’t simply, mean eventual re-joining, but a thorough repudiation and marginalization of the entire populist or Brexitist project. For scenario two, repetition and intensification lead to ‘pariahdom’, meaning international isolation and domestic authoritarianism and immiseration. But it’s also possible that the current situation, in which the two scenarios are contested with neither becoming dominant, will become the permanent one. That scenario, which we could call ‘muddling along’, actually seems quite likely at the moment and if so would lead to permanent economic and geo-political decline, as well perpetual political and cultural strife.
How re-joiners decide to conduct themselves will be one, though clearly only one, of the factors in what now happens in terms of these post-Brexit scenarios. The extent of the damage of Brexit and how widely that damage is recognized is one of many others. So is the scale of the expected Tory defeat at the next election and how the Tory Party then responds. A Labour government will take us some way to scenario one, though won’t be enough to do so in itself, and will presumably improve the TCA (and, to pre-empt some objections, no, that doesn’t mean ‘cherry-picking’ and, no, it won’t come close to reversing the economic damage of Brexit).
Getting from that to any kind of re-joining (whether of EU or single market) will need a situation to develop where it is the settled ambition of both government and official opposition parties, rather as it was in the 1960s when (unsuccessful) applications to join the EU were made by both Conservative and Labour governments, though, post-Brexit, any such application would need to be preceded by a referendum. In other words, as then, and quite differently than was the case with Brexit, joining would become an established national strategy.
The British polity is currently nowhere near that point. And it may never get to that point (and that won’t be hastened but delayed if, as some think, it needs to be preceded by reforming the ‘first past the post system’, which would mean electing a government with such a policy and then holding, and winning, a referendum on that, before even getting to the question of re-joining).
The long road ahead
But if things are ever to get to that point it will start with baby steps like the Ditchley Park meeting (even to call that a baby step is to overstate the case), after which there could and would certainly need to be far more confident and significant strides. The Brexiters, even as their cause languishes in the opinion polls, will still have the power to keep trying to trip that process up. They can only be aided in that if re-joiners and erstwhile remainers jeer at and belittle every fledgling attempt to walk.
Of course, it is absurd, infuriating, ludicrous that we should be in such a situation, and that it is not possible simply to say, as one might in everyday life, that a terrible mistake was made and that it should be put right as quickly as possible. But, politically, that isn’t possible because of the deep and toxic nature of Brexit and the bitter divisions that still exist over it, including over the very idea that it was a terrible mistake. For evidence of that, just look at the extraordinary anger even something as trivial as the Ditchley Park meeting provoked. The poison can’t just be sucked and spat out. The fever has to pass and, even then, a long recuperation will be needed.
In the time that takes, the costs of Brexit will rack up, higher and higher. That’s disastrous. But one of the many damages caused by Brexit is precisely the fact that even the process of reversing it entails huge costs.
(*) I am mainly referring here to reaction on social media. In line with my usual practice I don’t link to tweets unless they are from public figures, but if anyone doubts the veracity of my account of these reactions see, for example, some of the responses to my own tweet of the original report of the meeting.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Professor Chris Grey, Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.
▪ Text: This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 27 February 2023, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
▪ Cover: Adobe Stock/Pixelbliss.