Within minutes of Liz Truss’s final, ignominious speech as Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street last autumn, her staunch ally Jacob Rees-Mogg also resigned his post as Business Secretary.
Jumping before he was pushed by Rishi Sunak, Rees-Mogg dated his 25 October resignation letter as “St Crispin’s Day”, a reference to the Christian saint murdered by the Romans.
If he saw himself as a martyr of the low tax Trussonomics and Brexiteer cause, the former Business Secretary’s holy ghost certainly hovered over the Commons chamber later that day when the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill had its second reading in the Commons.
Although it was left to a junior minister to introduce this landmark piece of legislation, which seeks to abolish by the end of 2023 all remaining EU rules in the UK, Rees-Mogg’s name was still on the front of the bill. Before the debate even started, SNP MP Patrick Grady suggested the bill be dropped because it was “essentially a vanity project” for the departed minister.
Well, the controversial bill – which supporters said would launch “a bonfire of EU law” – survived and on Wednesday it is due to clear its remaining Commons stages. While Rees-Mogg may be gone from government, his cherished legislation very much remains.
Yet there has been a growing cross-party campaign to amend the bill, particularly to curb the sweeping powers that it will give to ministers to pick and choose which of up to 4,000 retained EU rules should be junked automatically at the end of this year.
Backed by backbenchers ranging from Labour’s Stella Creasy to Tory former Cabinet ministers David Davis and Robert Buckland, the amendment seeks to give Parliament rather than the Government the right to decide which rules should be kept or lost.
As Davis puts it to me: “When we talked about taking back control, it wasn’t removing control from Brussels to give it to Whitehall, it was taking back control to give it to Westminster and our sovereign Parliament.”
He’s got a point. And his scepticism is shared by other Conservatives who believe the bill walks into the very trap they long wanted to avoid: being accused of putting at risk a raft of sensible regulations on everything from the environment to the chemicals industry, to workers’ rights to holiday pay, anti-discrimination protection and safe working hours.
The “Pregnant Then Screwed” campaign said it risked “a reversal in women’s rights”. The Employment Lawyers Association warned it would create a legal “wasteland able to grow nothing but uncertainty and the thick weeds of litigation”.
Other Brexiteers, from George Eustice to Theresa Villiers, have expressed real worries about the sheer practicalities of the Rees-Mogg bill too. They fear that the civil service will be overwhelmed by having to spend this year sifting through thousands of individual laws, many of which are popular or necessary.
On some estimates, the Department for the Environment (Defra) will have to revoke or rewrite three laws a day to meet the target of completing this programme by the end of the year. Other departments face being similarly swamped, often at great cost to the taxpayer. MPs have spotted that a whole swathe of environmental laws have not even been identified as at risk.
Crucially, some Brexiteers fear that the “blunderbuss” approach to shooting all retained EU law is counter-productive. “We don’t need divergence on everything, so we don’t need to repeal everything,” one tells me. “We should focus on the small number of areas where we really can get some benefits from deregulation and forget the rest.”
Another MP added: “Exploiting the benefits of Brexit should be about common sense and intelligence and commercial advantage, not some sort of grand headline about ‘bonfires’ of laws”. Deregulation in areas like fintech or test-beds for cutting edge science like AI and robotics would be more sensible, they add.
The bill does have a provision to allow some flexibility to “sunset” the EU laws by the end of 2026 rather than the end of 2023. But even this deadline has baffled MPs. Rees-Mogg originally battled with Cabinet colleagues who felt that 2030 was a more sensible deadline given the sheer number of rules involved. The 2026 date was itself arbitrary, floated by Rees-Mogg purely because it was the 10th anniversary of the Brexit referendum.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the Retained EU Law Bill is that Rishi Sunak has stuck with it, particularly in its current form. It was Sunak’s own Treasury that last year privately flagged up “concerns about the burden [on Whitehall] placed by the 2026 sunset” and wanted some tax matters excluded from it.
As the UK in a Changing Europe think tank has pointed out, the Treasury’s own Financial Services and Markets Bill last year took a more sensible approach to retained EU law by specifying which areas it will be revoking, areas where it has undertaken extensive consultation with business. The scalpel, not the blunderbuss, was seen as more effective.
The problem is that Sunak has often had a blind spot on Brexit, or at least a fear that hardline Brexiteers in his party will punish him for any hint of compromise. Last year, in what looked like a desperate attempt to keep alive his Tory leadership campaign, he made a much-ridiculed video that promised to start literally shredding every EU law within his first 100 days as PM.
It may well be that given Sunak is preparing a compromise on Boris Johnson’s flawed Northern Ireland Protocol, he feels he has to give the European Research Group some “red meat” in the shape of an unchanged Rees-Mogg bill.
If Sunak were to pull off smart concessions on the retained EU law, he could relieve the burden from a Whitehall that wants to focus on his five New Year priorities, while defusing concerns of business and charities. Smart politics and smart economics ought to appeal to him.
Even at this late stage, there is chatter in Parliament that Sunak may try to buy off some critics by stripping environmental laws out of the bill, or that ministers will signal other changes in the House of Lords. The reality is that peers of all parties may well delay the legislation in the Lords anyway, effectively saving Sunak from himself.
As presently constructed, the current bill opens the Tories to the charge that they will start a binfire of workers rights and environmental protections. But if Sunak proactively makes sensible changes to the legislation, he may win plaudits for starting an overdue bonfire of the Brexit vanities of the former Business Secretary.