The Government faces its latest Brexit battle with the Commons debating the Retained EU Law Bill. This is the proposed legislation, introduced by Jacob Rees-Mogg under Liz Truss, that would cause 4,000-odd pieces of EU secondary legislation to expire automatically after December unless they are explicitly retained or replaced.
Rishi Sunak faces two major challenges to the ex-Business Secretary’s baby. Labour has put down various amendments designed to push deadlines for specific rules back to 2026. Meanwhile, David Davis and Robert Buckland are backing efforts by Labour’s Stella Creasy to give MPs a vote on a list of laws drawn up by the Government – to which they can add, or remove – by the end of September.
I have already written about why I think a pause to the bill might be no bad thing. Today’s parliamentary bout provides an excellent opportunity to review other vital perspectives on the legislation. We have five major approaches: Rees-Mogg’s, Labour’s, that of the Davis-Buckland-Creasy axis, that of George Freeman (the science minister), and the Prime Minister’s
Each has a different take on the timetable, role of Parliament, and how many rules should be culled. Since Rees-Mogg has remained this bill’s most prominent champion since returning to the backbenchers – and because he stars in the finest podcast in Westminster – it is only fair we look at this approach first.
Somerset’s second most famous spectacle wearer (after Jack Leach) has argued that the “inheritance of the EU regulatory system is now an urgent problem across our economy”. He wants the regulations reviewed, retained, or revoked by the end of the year, so that the change can be bedded in and the potential from deregulation harnessed by the next election. The process of reviewing would be left to Whitehall departments; the presumption would be in favour of scrapping as much as possible.
Labour wants to avoid being tarnished with the Brexit-phobic brush, so their opposition is limited to aiming to exclude various EU laws from the end-of-year deadline. Already these can be extended to 2026 for more complex regulations, so Starmer can argue he is merely expanding the Government’s existing leeway to cover transporting animals, toy safety, and other easy wins. They do intend to leave Whitehall in control, perhaps with the hope of kicking the project into the long grass when in power.
Next, the David-Buckland-Creasy axis. Under Creasy’s amendment (signed by seven Tory MPs), the Government would have until September’s end to produce a list of laws it wishes to scrap, with MPs able to alter it via a vote. The chair of the Labour Movement for Europe argues her amendment is an effort to avoid a “massive…cock up” – in line with the criticism of environmental groups and trade unions – and that it was “nothing to do with Brexit, otherwise Brexiteers wouldn’t support” her additions.
The former Brexit secretary would agree. Echoing Daniel Finkelstein’s recent column, Davis told the BBC that the Leave campaign’s aim had been to “give power to Westminster, not to Whitehall”. Buckland’s focus is different, suggesting the amendment is “a pretty nifty” way of ensuring laws are not “scrapped by mistake”. Though nominally supporting getting the bill through by the year’s end, one assumes they would see a delay as not too huge a loss.
The next approach is that suggested by George Freeman, the science minister. He recently told Christoper Hope that a purported “bonfire” of the 4,000-odd pieces of legislation identified could be scaled back to just a few hundred. Freeman suggested officials should initially scrap just “the top 10 per cent of daft regulations that are holding us back”, rather than aim to bin all unnecessary EU rules at once. Targeting like this would be faster and would help the process be finished by the year’s end.
And so we come to the Prime Minister himself. In his brief and unconvincing attempts to pander to the membership during last summer’s leadership election, he pledged to review or scrap EU laws within 100 days of taking office. That was one of numerous proposals thought up in haste by Sunak and his team that were quietly dropped once he eventually moved into Number 10.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister remains under pressure from his MPs to deliver on the review, retain, or revoke process by New Year’s Day 2024. He needs to keep restive Brexit-backing backbenchers onside, especially if he is planning various concessions on the Northern Ireland Protocol. For the same reason, he will also not take kindly to the passage of amendments which will slow what the usual siren voices will portray as “delivering Brexit”, or which hand rebellious parliamentarians a greater role.
That is why Downing Street has sought to placate those tempted to follow David and Buckland by announcing the Cabinet has agreed not to remove existing rights and protections. Even so, Sunak did so in a way that suggests he has been listening to his science minister. His aim, he said, was to enable Britain to develop the “best regulatory environment”, which he believes is essential to “accelerating economic recovery and driving growth, innovation, and competitiveness”.
With Britain just declared the joint-third best place in the world to invest, and with many businesses uninterested in the wide-ranging deregulation Rees-Mogg envisages, this suggests the Prime Minister’s instincts lie towards removing specific regulations, rather than scrapping our EU inheritance wholescale. As Whitehall is kicking up a fuss about its capacity to review the laws in time, any delay that could be blamed on the House of Lords might be rather helpful, especially with a contentious bill inherited from his predecessor.
So whilst the Government’s language today might suggest it is fore-square behind the ex-Business Secretary’s approach, one suspects Sunak would have agreed with Freeman’s comments of a couple of weeks ago. That’s if he was listening. Like any good Conservative, I’m sure the Moggcast is the only political podcast he needs.