It often seems as if there is an omertà in British politics around talking about Brexit, even more so about what can be done to mitigate its damage. Tobias Ellwood, one of the few to call explicitly for the UK to rejoin the single market, insists there are talks – just behind closed doors.
“It’s such a toxic subject… I mean, if you’ve lived and breathed politics in Britain over the last five years it’s almost taboo to speak about it, so painful is it,” he says. “There are conversations you have in the tearooms, but they stay there in the tearooms.”
The Conservative MP and chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee is clear in his view: while rejoining the EU is not on the table, the experience of Brexit has proved the UK needs to be back inside the single market. (At least, Ellwood was the chair at the time of writing – we spoke before the release of a video showing him praising the Taliban’s governance of Afghanistan. When contacted afterwards, Ellwood declined to comment beyond a statement released apologising for his “poor communication”.)
“What we’re seeing now, more and more developing as a trend, is whether you voted Remain or Brexit, people questioning where we’ve ended up,” he says. “And what I’ve tried to pronounce and pursue is not a huge clamour or call to rejoin the EU – that would be completely wrong. Those who criticise me use that argument, but it is completely false. I’m driven by the fact that we have no choice but to revisit Brexit because it’s up for formal review.”
The UK and EU have agreed to review the Trade and Cooperation Agreement – Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal – every five years. The first is due in 2025.
“Most people aren’t aware, including MPs, that after five years we have to go back into the room and re-sign on the dotted line,” says Ellwood. “And do we say, ‘yes, everything’s tickety-boo, nothing to see here, let’s plod on as we are’? Or do we take the opportunity to tweak this, to advance it, to learn where we could improve? And, given the massive economic challenges that our country faces, it would be a dereliction of duty for government not to see if we can still honour the Brexit result, but having a relationship with the EU which would be in Britain’s economic interest to pursue.”
Why, I ask, would rejoining the EU be “completely wrong” if, as Remain voter Ellwood suggests, Brexit hasn’t worked? “Because that isn’t understanding the toxicity of the issue at the moment and the art of the possible,” he says. “Anybody talking about joining the EU now will have no following or base to pursue that. Tactically, it would be completely the wrong thing to do. Whereas what I’ve tried to do is offer a solution that honours the political decision we sought in the EU referendum, but a better landing place as to what Brexit looked like.
“The ineptness of the referendum, the construct was just so poor, we should never do a referendum like this ever again. What we were asked was ‘do we like the colour of this room or not?’. And everybody said ‘we don’t like the colour of this room’. But we then didn’t say what colour we’re going to paint it. And then we spent agonising years trying to work out what colour we’d end up painting it. And we’ve ended up with a pretty miserable mish-mash of colours, which now today is ever clearer was not where everybody anticipated us being.
“If you don’t like your prime minister and you think that’s going in the wrong direction and you’re willing to get a new one, why is it that we’re refusing to review the biggest decision made in a couple of generations affecting Britain’s economy?”
But still, I suggest, if something has been bodged so badly, then surely it should be reconsidered entirely rather than tinkered with? “It’s not for me to make that judgment,” he says. “I’m saying what’s needed for the here and now and the immediate future. It could be that another generation makes a judgment on our relationship with the EU, but for the moment, again, I go back to: what is the art of the possible?”
His opponents on this within his own party, however, are portraying Ellwood’s calls as being a staging post for an eventual return to the EU, I say. Former secretary of state for Wales David Jones has said Ellwood’s “plan, no doubt, is to keep pumping out this gloomy narrative until the British people decide that Brexit isn’t worth the candle and demand to return to the tender embrace of Ursula von der Leyen and Emmanuel Macron”.
Ellwood says: “Ask yourself, why are my opponents saying this? Why aren’t they looking at the detail and saying ‘actually, compare where we are today with joining the single market and here are my reasons why, economically, it would not make sense’? They can’t put that argument together, because they know they’re on weak grounds, that actually we would be a richer country if we rejoined the single market, the very market that Margaret Thatcher created. And Dan Hannan, David Frost, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage all knew that too, which is why they argued to remain in the single market in the lead-up to the vote itself.
“I’m working out – this is sort of my military training that you get here – what is the best course of action that offers a compromise, that keeps the nation together with the maximum amount of support. So joining the single market will be of interest to those who voted Remain. It would be something if you could sell the argument economically, still on as Brexit. It’s the Norway model, in simple language. And Norway is very much not in the EU.
“Not only that, it would help with our labour market, absolutely, where there’s a shortage of nurses up and down the country. In Bournemouth [Ellwood’s constituency] a whole bunch of nurses from places like Spain disappeared. Covid didn’t help, but they’ve not returned. They’ve gone to other parts of the EU now to work. And it would change migration as well, because we’d be back in the Dublin Accord. And also, bigger picture, remove all the noise of Boris Johnson – what is Britain if not a country that participates on the international stage? We’ve turned back to that characteristic, that strength of character, that mindset, with Ukraine. But with the EU, internationally people are baffled why we left in the first place.”
How would it happen, realistically, I ask, given that the Conservatives have been consumed by Brexit purity and Labour have made it clear that for them, as far as the single market is concerned the ship has sailed?
“Well, if you had serious adults who put the nation first, a worthy solution that would go down historically as being a game-changer in how we do politics is that the principle stakeholders, the leader of the opposition and the prime minister, would go into a room, agree together on a position on Brexit, such as joining the single market, and then it would be ruled out as an issue at the next election. But that is clearly not going to happen.
“Instead, we go into this artificial world of both parties avoiding the subject because it’s so toxic and because it’s not working, and not being honest with the Red Wall seats in particular about the fact that actually this model is damaging the UK’s economy. And it will then take a Labour Party that will be disingenuous with its views – and, indeed, to some degree, a Conservative Party as well – on what they will do after the next election. I’d put money on it that we will be back in the single market in five to 10 years’ time. But at the moment no politician will go there.”
There is no question, he says, about the EU welcoming the UK back into the single market. “I mean, I’ve had these conversations with the EU on many occasions,” he says. “Europe is stronger with Britain – such a huge economy, fifth largest in the world – being part of it. And there’s huge regret from the EU side that we’ve gone down this road.”
I wonder if ploughing his largely lonely furrow has proved bruising. Conservative colleagues have been scathing in their assaults on him, with former Brexit negotiator David Frost explicitly calling for Ellwood’s expulsion from the party for his heresy.
Ellwood, a lieutenant colonel in the 77th Brigade, is unperturbed. “That’s what politics is about,” he says “And the fact that they are choosing to go personal… when you stoop to that level, when you attack the person, not the ball, then you know that you’re on to something.
“And they have their own reasons. David Frost now lives and breathes Brexit, and he’s embarrassed by the fact that he called for joining the single market and now he has to compensate for that. I’m not going to make any personal comment on those people, I’m going to stay focused on policy. History will bear one side or the other out.
“I’m a centre-right, One Nation Conservative. And the idea of expelling people like me – there are a lot of people who have been less vocal, who support my views – to then flush us out of the party, where does that leave the focus of the party? It moves the overall emphasis ever further to the right. Ever further to being unelected. You get elected because you are that broad church. When two sides start calling each other names, the only beneficiary is the opposition.”