Ditchley Park has a bit of a history of secret tenants. During World War Two, one Winston Churchill used it as something of a base of operations, conducting government far away from the destruction and chaos of the Blitz. Earlier this month, however, the historic country house was used for meetings about another war, only this time a war of ideology and dogma — Brexit.

Brexiteers Stand their Ground

For years now, Brexit has clouded our politics to such an extent that Supreme Court justices, who are meant to be anonymous to avoid undue influence, were branded ‘Enemies of the People’ by the Daily Mail for daring to suggest that any Brexit deal would have to have Parliament’s consent. These judges were attacked, essentially, for doing their job: upholding the principles of the UK Constitution — one of which is parliamentary sovereignty.

Brexit in its current form clearly isn’t working, as this film by the Financial Times shows. We are now starting to see the consequences of being promised the world — those ‘sunlit uplands’ have been replaced by a muddy bog that has the odd pretty flower on the opposite bank. It is little wonder that the promised £350 million a week for the NHS never materialized — that figure was categorically untrue. This is no time, then, for ideological blinkers to get in the way of pragmatic solutions; no time for populism to start driving the train and then crash it into the side of a tunnel. The cold, hard facts show that Brexit is not working. It’s foolish, and frankly dangerous, to pretend otherwise.

It’s likely that the Ditchley Summit won’t have much of an influence. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pressed the Brexiteer panic button of talking up the benefits when asked about the summit. Perhaps the Conservative Party feels it has gone too far to turn back. The rise of born-again Brexiteers (like Liz Truss and Jeremy Hunt) and the lifelong Eurosceptics has created a Brexit behemoth within the Party. Such individuals will not be for turning. Sunak would likely have to rely on Labour votes, which could trigger another change of leadership to get any sort of pro-EU revision to the Brexit deal through Parliament — provided he even wants that. As a firm Brexiteer, it’s more probable that he will join his comrades in avoiding the harsh reality of the damage Brexit has done.

A Change of Government?

So why bother talking about this at all? If there is not going to be a change in government policy as a result of the summit, surely its purpose was utterly pointless? I beg to differ. Judging by the latest YouGov poll, it’s looking more likely that next year will usher in a Labour government. Notably, Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, was at Ditchley. Michael Gove, one of Brexit’s most zealous backers in 2016, was also at Ditchley. There is a chance — albeit a slim one — that Labour might be on manoeuvres. A centrist coalition around the Brexit question may be in the works. One that does not shy away from the hard truths about the consequences of Brexit and aims to rectify them — while still respecting the decision of 52 per cent of the voting public to leave the EU.

However, this is where it starts to get a little tricky. Labour has set out its stall quite early on Brexit, presumably to prevent the Conservatives from throwing some red meat to their base by implying that Labour would move to rejoin the EU. In doing so, they have ruled out some fairly easy fixes to our present economic woes, with Sir Keir Starmer setting out a firm Brexit stance in his 5-point plan:

‘We will not be joining the single market. We will not be joining a customs union.’

This, for me, is akin to Arsenal ruling out scoring from inside the box for the rest of the season. While a soft rejoin is possible — by aligning with EU regulations and reducing tariffs on goods coming in from the EU — it certainly won’t be easy given the mess that is the ‘Northern Ireland Protocol.’ Bottom line, the EU remains in a much stronger negotiating position than the UK and could decide to play hardball — or dismiss Labour’s soft rejoin entirely. That would put Labour in a bit of a quandary. Rejoining fully would be seen as a betrayal and U-turn that Conservatives will no doubt seize upon. But doing nothing would further damage the economy, with distribution centres and businesses, and therefore jobs, steadily flowing to the EU to avoid the endless customs checks. In this scenario, there is no obvious solution. Our economy will remain partially paralysed and we will all suffer as a result.

The Economy is Key

So, Ditchley was probably nothing to make a huge fuss about. Both major parties have dug their trenches for the next election. That doesn’t mean, however, that it cannot be the start of a long, possibly painful journey to a better, more nuanced debate over at least the economics of Brexit — one that could create an opportunity to bandage some of Britain’s wounds. Those who are driven by ideology over pragmatism may paint such a journey as going against the will of the people. And yet, there was more to Brexit than the economy — and the economy has to be fixed to allow Britain to flourish outside of the EU.

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