Senior figures from the Conservative and Labour parties met in secret to discuss the failings of Brexit and how to steer the UK away from terminal decline outside the European Union, according to reports.
A two-day gathering attended by Michael Gove and high-ranking members of Sir Keir Starmer’s cabinet was held at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire on Thursday and Friday, after the early weeks of 2023 have seen the dim state of Britain’s economy laid bare.
Politicians from both sides of the Brexit debate held talks with diplomats, defence experts and leading figures from the business and banking worlds as officials acknowledged leaving the EU had damaged the UK’s prospects and stymied growth.
According to documents obtained by The Observer, which first reported the meetings, the summit was described as a “private discussion” under the title: “How can we make Brexit work better without neighbours in Europe?”
Attendees from the pro-Brexit camp in Westminster were said to include former Tory party leader Michael Howard, former Tory chancellor Norman Lamont and former Labour Europe minister Gisela Stuart, a leading figure of the leave campaign.
Remainers at the summit included shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, shadow defence secretary John Healey and the former European commissioner and Labour cabinet minister Peter Mandelson, who acted as chair. Tory ex-minister for Europe, David Lidington was also said to be there.
Non-political attendees included John Symonds, chair of the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline; Oliver Robbins, Goldman Sachs managing director and former chief Brexit negotiator; Tom Scholar, former Treasury permanent secretary; and Angus Lapsley, Nato assistant secretary general for defence policy and planning, according to The Observer.
In an introductory statement, attendees heard there was now a view among “some at least, that so far the UK has not yet found its way forward outside the EU” with Brexit “acting as a drag on our growth and inhibiting the UK’s potential”.
A source who was there told the paper it was a “constructive meeting” that addressed the problems and opportunities of Brexit but never strayed far from the economic liabilities the UK faces at a time of global instability and soaring costs of living.
Mr Gove, who co-led Vote Leave in the 2016 referendum campaign with Boris Johnson and Ms Stuart, was said to have been heavily involved in talks, and despite still believing Brexit would eventually prove to be the right decision, was “honest” about the difficulties of Britain’s first three years outside the EU.
“The main thrust of it was that Britain is losing out, that Brexit it not delivering, our economy is in a weak position,” said the source. “It was about moving on from leave and remain, and what are the issues we now have to face, and how can we get into the best position in order to have a conversation with the EU about changes to the UK-EU trade and cooperation agreement when that happens?”
The summit was held at a moment when Britain’s future looks bleak after narrowly avoiding recession last year and ranking last among major economies in a recent IMF forecast.
Talks with Europe hold the key to solving many of the biggest problems facing the UK but, three years after Brexit took effect, relations with Brussels remain prickly.
Ministers are still locked in talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol while easing the crisis of small boat crossings in the English channel requires close cooperation with France and the wider EU.