Parliament was a tale of two houses on Monday. In the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg was busy accusing Sue Gray of being a “conniving” “friend of the socialists”. But in the Lords, at exactly the same time, Rees-Mogg’s own Brexit bill was getting a fresh mauling by peers.
The former Business Secretary’s Cabinet career may be long dead, but his Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill is very much alive. And as it seeks to give legal force to Rees-Mogg’s plan for a “bonfire” of EU regulations, it is certainly facing some vociferous opposition in the Upper Chamber.
The controversial legislation will mean that nearly 4,000 EU rules, copied into British law after Brexit, will expire automatically on New Year’s Eve unless they are specifically kept or replaced by ministers.
During the bill’s Committee Stage in the Lords, critics have repeatedly warned that the tight deadline – also known as a “sunset” date – will rob Parliament from having a meaningful say over a huge number of regulations covering the environment, workers’ rights and much else.
The legislation is looking more and more like a slow-motion car crash for the Government, not least because of the wider range of campaign groups and charities it has upset.
While the TUC is very worried about a watering down of basic rights to maternity and holidays, business is unnerved by the huge uncertainty the bill creates. Wildlife groups like the RSPB, safety groups like the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, even the Women’s Institute (that bastion of Middle England) have formed a formidable alliance against the plans.
Given that this whole exercise is supposed to be “liberating” British firms to boost growth, the level of scepticism among companies is stark. I’ve been passed details of a new YouGov poll of businesses by the safety group Unchecked UK, and it makes difficult reading for ministers.
The polling found that firms strongly support environmental regulation. Some 72 per cent said that the government regulates businesses’ environmental practices “too little” or the “right amount”. Only a fifth think the regulations are excessive.
Nearly four in five (79 per cent) UK businesses said that they are not willing to accept lower health and safety standards for their employees and customers, with just 7 per cent saying they would accept a weakening of the rules.
Removing current regulations was also way down business’s list of priorities. Energy costs, inflation, labour shortages and Brexit itself were their four most pressing worries
But perhaps most interesting was just how many firms valued the right kind of regulation, precisely because it helps the public trust their products and creates a level playing field to prevent being undercut by rivals who cut corners.
And that “level playing field” is one of the reasons that Brussels is getting increasingly jumpy about the REUL bill, with fears that it will undermine the promises made by Boris Johnson in his Brexit deal with the EU.
Given the potential breakthrough that Rishi Sunak has secured with his Windsor Framework on Northern Ireland, it would be odd if he opted to jeopardise a new era of co-operation with a throwback to the bitterest Brexit wars.
There is one school of thought that it’s precisely because some in the European Research Group are so wary of the Windsor deal that the PM is – for now – sticking to the Rees-Mogg legacy legislation. Backbenchers start biting unless they’re lobbed some red meat occasionally, the theory goes.
Yet the most striking thing about the “bonfire of EU rules” bill is just how needless it is. It not only creates an unnecessary diplomatic row with Brussels just as relations are on the mend. It also sends exactly the message that some more thoughtful Brexiteers have long feared: the perception that they will recklessly tear up worker rights and environmental protections when the UK is out of the EU.
Few Conservatives expect Sunak to preside over a “Singapore-on-Sea” trashing of wildlife or worker rights, but this bill gifts that image to his opponents. While some rules on finance and technology could be changed to help the UK, this legislation employs a scattergun when a scalpel is needed.
That’s why some Tory Brexiteers in the Lords believe this bill is needless politically too. In giving ministers sweeping new powers to set the regulations, they think it undermines their central pitch to the voters in the EU referendum and the 2019 election that the British Parliament and its people would “take back control” from Brussels.
Some see no need at all for the end-of-2023 deadline, nor the 2026 extension the bill sets as a final, final cut-off date for other regulations. Government whip Baroness Bloomfield last week admitted that this second, arbitrary date – June 23, 2026 – was chosen because it was “a full-circle moment” to mark the 10th anniversary of the original Brexit referendum. For some in business, that doesn’t feel like a sound reason for the rush to regulatory uncertainty.
That discontent is building and when the bill comes back for its Report Stage, it’s looking likely that the Government will suffer a series of defeats as peers try to give Parliament more of a say, to force transparency on individual regulations or to change the “sunset” timetable.
The problem for Sunak is that because the bill sets an arbitrary deadline of the end of 2023 (with a backstop of 2026, the Lords has time on its side. Even if he tries to ram the legislation through with the Parliament Act, that would take up to a year, ensuring the December deadline is missed.
Of course, the real object of the Rees-Mogg legislation’s automatic removal of thousands of regulations may well be to make it much harder and more laborious for the UK to ever rejoin the EU. But that’s such a distant prospect that it feels like a solution in search of a problem.
Labour’s Jenny Chapman, who has proposed a “sovereignty amendment” to harness cross-party agreement, put her finger on the PM’s problem when she said this was all an aftershock of the Liz Truss era (the bill started its Commons passage under her short reign).
“It is as if the Government got completely drunk and now we have a hell of a hangover to deal with,” Chapman said. But with the WI and RSPB and others on the march, it’s Tory MPs who could be feeling most queasy.
Sunak still has time to make concessions on the Retained EU Law bill. With his Windsor agreement and with talks to end the public sector strikes, the PM is showing that compromise and cooperation are no longer dirty words in a Conservative administration.
If he fails to deploy a similarly deft touch on this issue, the Rees-Mogg legacy could retoxify the Tories just at the point Sunak is trying to detoxify them.