Brexit: senior Tories furious after government scraps deadline to get rid of EU laws in UK

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NationalWorld’s politics editor Tom Hourigan explains why the deadline was abandoned, and why some Conservative MPs are angry

Some Conservative MPs have reacted furiously to the government’s decision to backtrack on a post-Brexit promise to replace or remove thousands of EU laws by the end of this year.

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch told MPs - after looking “at the detail” - it was necessary to abandon the deadline and that she, rather than Rishi Sunak, had taken the decision to scrap it.

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What was the promise?

When the UK formally left the European Union in January 2020, it incorporated nearly 5,000 European laws into British law to avoid them suddenly disappearing, which would have caused a major shock to companies relying on this legislation to continue doing business.

These laws cover a gigantic range of issues that affect us all - from the safety of the products we buy in the shops to environmental standards to working time regulations. The government even created a public dashboard so people could see how much EU law was in force in the UK.

In September 2022, during Liz Truss’s short-lived tenure as Prime Minister, she brought forward the Retained EU Law Bill - which had one key mission: to scrap or replace the “majority” of EU laws by 31st December 2023 so the UK could make the most of its Brexit freedoms, and turn Britain into the “best regulated economy in the world”. In other words, less red tape would hopefully attract investment and supercharge the economy.

When Rishi Sunak unsuccessfully ran against Truss for the Conservative leadership last summer, he also promised to put EU laws through a shredder - turning his pledge into a much-commented-on campaign video. He did not repeat the commitment when he succeeded Truss in October 2022.

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MPs passed the bill at the start of this year, but it’s yet to be scrutinised by the House of Lords.

Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty ImagesBusiness and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images | Getty Images

What’s happened now?

On Wednesday (10 May) Badenoch announced that around 600 laws would be revoked by the end of this year - rather than the 4,000 initially promised - insisting it was more of a “race than a deadline”.

She said there were “risks of legal uncertainty” if some of the legislation copied over was automatically scrapped - but that the UK would still “fully take back control” of its laws.

Badenoch added that around 1,000 laws had already been scrapped or altered, but the public dashboard shows the figure is closer to 900, and only 245 of those laws have been repealed.

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She made the announcement in a written statement - and expanded on it in an article for The Daily Telegraph - before she came to the House of Commons on Thursday (11 May) to address MPs, prompting a furious response from the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who said it was “totally not acceptable”.

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What have other Conservatives said?

Former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg - who was in office when the Retained EU Law Bill was introduced to Parliament - said Badenoch’s decision was an “admission of administrative failure”, calling it a “missed opportunity to make the UK economy more efficient and competitive.” He claimed that was “especially important” at a time of high inflation as a bonfire of EU law “would have reduced prices”.

Rees-Mogg also criticised civil servants in Whitehall - suggesting they’d failed to do the “necessary work” to meet the deadline. Dave Penman, who leads the FDA union representing civil servants, hit back - insisting the main problem was that this deadline was “artificial”.

Former Justice Secretary Dominic Raab also claimed there was “resistance” in Whitehall and said in his old department alone, a large number of laws had been identified which needed to be scrapped or altered. Badenoch said civil servants had been working “feverishly” to get the job done.

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What has the opposition said?

Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Jenny Chapman described the announcement as a “humiliating U-turn from a weak and divided government” - which she said had “wasted months of Parliamentary time”. The Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Fox, added that the fight was “not over” on the legislation - as there was “still a lot of uncertainty” about what would happen next.

Are businesses happy?

There’s certainly been some relief among senior figures in the business world. Jane Gratton from the British Chambers of Commerce said firms had been worried about the “headlong rush towards the sudden removal of vast swathes of legislation” - and welcomed the fact the government had “listened” to its warnings about the “real risk of unintended but negative consequences”.

But other organisations are unhappy the Bill is continuing in any form.  Craig Bennett from The Wildlife Trust said that ministers would still have “carte blanche to pick and choose which laws should be kept or binned without public consultation”.

After a lengthy row in recent months about sewage being dumped into rivers and other waterways, environmental groups fear other protections might be scrapped as more EU law is taken off the statute book.

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What’s the political impact?

Rishi Sunak is not in a particularly strong position at the moment despite the large Parliamentary majority he (and Liz Truss) inherited from Boris Johnson. The Conservatives lost more than 1,000 seats in last week’s local elections and while Sunak has sought to restore the image of the party as one of stability and competence, some on the Tory right-wing aren’t happy with the direction he’s leading them in.

The decision to scrap the deadline for jettisoning EU law really matters to MPs like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who hold a lot of sway in the Tory Parliamentary party - and who don’t think Brexit is being properly seen through. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Sunak had broken his word and accused the PM of “behaving like a Borgia” - a reference to an extremely powerful family in 15th and 16th century Italy who were ruthless in their pursuit of power.

Some on the Tory right have never forgiven Sunak for resigning as Chancellor in a chain of events last summer that brought down Johnson, the man who stood on a platform of “getting Brexit done” - and this adds fuel to that fire.

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