Rishi Sunak has been warned not to “sell out” Brexit after senior Tories attended a cross-party conference that advocated closer ties to the EU.
Conservative MPs urged the Prime Minister to hold his nerve and maximize the benefits of leaving the bloc rather than seeking to re-tie Britain to Brussels rules.
It comes after reports that Mr Sunak has privately told senior ministers to draw up plans for how to rebuild relations with the EU across a range of policy areas.
Senior Tories including Michael Gove, the Leveling Up Secretary, attended a conference at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire last week on “making Brexit work better”. The discussion was chaired by Lord Mandelson, a former Labor minister, and David Lammythe shadow foreign secretary.
Lord Howard, a former Conservative leader, and Lord Lamont, an ex-Tory chancellor, were also at the meeting, as were business leaders. An introductory statement said Brexit was “acting as a drag on our growth and inhibiting the UK’s potential”, according to The Observer.
A source said the meeting was about “moving on from Leave and Remain” and building cross-party consensus on improving ties with Brussels, telling The Observer: “The main thrust of it was that Britain is losing out, that Brexit is not delivering, our economy is in a weak position.”
Senior Tories warned Mr Sunk as they prepared to hold his feet to the fire over any compromises on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Sir John Redwood, a leading eurosceptic, said: “Instead of talking of selling out at private conferences, the UK establishment needs to complete Brexit and use its freedoms.”
“Every time the UK makes concessions to the EU, they see it as weakness and treat us like a wayward dependent state. Time for the UK to show some independent spirit. Pass the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill so Northern Ireland is fully part of the UK, and take back full control of our fish for starters.”
Lord Cruddas, a Conservative peer, said the “truly extraordinary” gathering would not have happened with Boris Johnson as leader, adding: “It is in effect a platform for not dealing with the fundamental principles of the opportunities which Brexit throws up. His removal was all about reversing Brexit, never mind what the electorate voted for.”
David Jones, a former Brexit minister, said that if the meeting had truly been an attempt to build cross-party consensus then senior eurosceptics would have been invited. “If it were a genuine attempt to explore the benefits and problems associated with Brexit in the national interest, they wouldn’t have kept it in secret,” he added.
It is understood that Mr Gove attended the meeting because he is a governor of Ditchley Park, the stately home in which it was held. He was for a time the UK’s lead negotiator the protocolbut no longer has any government role related to Brexit.