Former chancellor and front runner in the Tory leadership race, Rishi Sunak, has vowed to “make Brexit sing” by “torching” (Express) or “ditching” (Telegraph) all “of the EU law, red tape and bureaucracy that is still on our statute book and slowing economic growth” by the time of the next election, if he succeeds Boris Johnson as prime minister.
The bold claim won him a lot of weekend headlines but his plan had quite a lot of wiggle room. The pesky EU laws he pledged to scrap are only the ones ‘slowing economic growth’. Since there is zero evidence that any of the retained EU laws have ever held Britain back, he could scrap none and still claim success.
In fact Britain’s growth next year is forecast to be the slowest in the G7 group of nations, three of which are in the EU and show no sign of being restrained by Brussels regulations.
A new Brexit ‘delivery’ department is coming
Writing in The Telegraph Sunak said he “would task a new Brexit delivery department with reviewing all of the remaining 2,400 laws on our statute book – with the first set of recommendations as to whether each law should be scrapped or reformed being published within my first 100 days in the job”.
According to Bloomberg, this is despite Lucy Frazer, financial secretary to the Treasury under Sunak when he was still chancellor, demanding that EU-derived tax laws be exempted from the review. The FT also claim a battle with the Bank of England is looming over plans to de-regulate financial services.
Mischievously, the Telegraph said Sunak would also “task a Brexit minister” to head up the new department, which rather suggests the current Brexit supremo Jacob Rees-Mogg will join the swelling ranks of ministers that have failed in the long search to uncover Brexit opportunities.
Whoever succeeds Rees-Mogg will probably suffer the same fate. It is proving to be a task with a high failure rate.
The red tape initiatives of the past
Sunak’s offer needs to be seen in context. His new ‘Brexit delivery department’ will join a very long list of previous red tape initiatives, all of which appear to have failed to identify any substantial regulations which have been throwing sand into Britain’s economic engine.
That Sunak made the pledge without being able to identify which specific EU regulations he intends to dispense with after years of effort should be a cause for some disquiet among Brexiters. There has been a vast amount of detailed work done before and since the Conservative Party came to office in 2010 but what has been announced so far has been little more than tinkering at the edges.
And yet Sunak appears undaunted. The Conservative Party has convinced itself Britain has been suffocating under burdensome EU red tape, but after 12 years of effort is unable to actually find anything substantive.
The full list of initiatives is astonishing:
The Red Tape Challenge (2011)
The Red Tape Blitz (2012)
One in two out initiative (2013)
The Regulator’s Code (2014)
Business Impact Target (2016)
Note: In launching the Business Impact Target, the then business minister Sajid Javid said that the UK had the lowest burden of regulation in the G7 according to the World Economic Forum but it didn’t stop the government launching yet more efforts to get rid of what little red tape there was.
The drive went on.
The Cutting Red Tape Review (2016)
The Red Tape Initiative (2016)
Note: A week later Javid had resigned so his ‘Red Tape Challenge’ didn’t get very far.
Note: The Better Regulation Committee was to “refresh the strategy on making better regulation outside the EU, review existing rules and cut red tape for businesses” and was chaired by someone named R. Sunak
Review of Retained EU Law (2021)
Note: At this point, and with little to show despite 20 previous initiatives and nearly 12 years of work inside Whitehall, there was a growing suspicion in government that Remainer civil servants were not being entirely honest and had secret lever arch files packed with crippling EU laws they were refusing to reveal to ministers.
Rees-Mogg then hit upon using Javid’s idea of appealing over the heads of senior mandarins to readers of the Sun and the Daily Express.
The last two also appear to have failed since the government has recently thrown open the hunt to every single person in the country, through the Retained EU Law dashboard.
The Retained EU law dashboard
One of Rees-Mogg’s last desperate efforts comes in the form of the Retained EU Law Public Dashboard, which seems to be another attempt to by-pass Remainer civil servants who are thwarting Brexit. Conservatives have a touching faith that someone, somewhere, will be able to identify the wicked EU laws that the party has been complaining about for decades.
His ‘dashboard’ sets out the number of retained EU laws by department (excluding Defra for some reason) and counting down as the offending ones are turfed out. Rees-Mogg “encourages the public to use the normal correspondence channels in order to highlight any specific regulations they would like to see amended, repealed or replaced”.
It is not known if Sunak, assuming he becomes prime minister as he expects, will keep the dashboard or start again with another blank sheet.
If the Retained EU Law Public Dashboard fails to uncover any substantive EU regulations, will the search go on? It is hard to see who the government might appeal to next. The Almighty?
The irony of it all is that in leaving the EU single market and the customs union, both EU exporters and importers are now genuinely struggling to survive a tsunami of red tape which is adding £billions to the costs of doing business with Europe.
Where are all the ‘barmy’ EU laws?
Readers of the Daily Express and the Sun (and others) must be baffled by Rees-Mogg’s call for them to provide examples of retained EU laws which need to be scrapped, after being bombarded for 25 years or more with hundreds of examples of ‘barmy’ EU directives and regulations spewing out like a broken sewer pipe from Brussels.
When we were members of the EU and had to follow EU law – the overwhelming majority of which we voted FOR – British newspapers had no difficulty coming up with any number of ‘daft’ EU regulations being pushed by ‘crackpot’ Euro chiefs. But now we are free to scrap any rules we don’t like, there is quite a serious problem in coming up with anything tangible, and even the right-wing press seems unable to sift through their own archives to find any.
You would think that regulations such as that banning crooked rhubarb stalks (the Sun June 1996) or another forcing circus performers to wear hard hats while tightrope walking (the Times 23 July 2003) would be among the first for the axe, but apparently not.
What about certain types of corgis being outlawed (the Mail 30 April 2002) or mushy peas being banned (various newspapers 9 August 1995)? Perhaps lifting the EU block on using the words like ‘lemon curd’ or ‘mince pie’ to describe some of our traditional foods (Daily Mail 30 October 2002) would be quite popular? And the ban on recycling tea bags (BBC News Online, 7 January 2005) should top the list shouldn’t it?
For the benefit of Rees-Mogg or anyone else interested in such things, the EU used to run a website (now archived) cataloguing hundreds of stories from the British press about EU laws which should surely be ready for the scrapyard? Many of them came from the pen of Johnson himself who gave Fleet Street its anti-EU bias when he was making his name as a journalist of no repute at the Telegraph.
The steady flow of such stories inexplicably stopped on 23 June 2016. Hopes of finding these laws must now be fading after a gruelling 12-year quest.
In May, in a final throw of the dice, Rees-Mogg was said to be developing plans to introduce a legislative sunset clause where 1,500 retained EU laws would be given a five-year expiry date by which point ministers will have to decide whether to keep, change or remove them.
This was said to be a way of forcing some ‘radical thinking’ – which presupposes none has happened so far – but doubts have been expressed about the civil service’s capacity to identify, review and reform so much legislation. This is also at a time when the government is seeking to reduce the civil service headcount.
The financial secretary to the Treasury has also suggested it would not be possible to sunset retained EU law by 2026 anyway.
The think tank UK In a Changing Europe (UKICE) run a regulatory divergence tracker, now on its 4th edition, which you can find HERE along with previous editions.
It is not true to say that there has been no divergence because there has. UKICE track both active divergence, where the UK decide to amend or repeal something, and passive divergence where the EU introduces or changes regulation and the UK does not follow suit.
What does comes across is the lack of any wholesale ‘torching’ or ‘ditching’ of EU laws. There are a lot of modest changes being consulted on or proposed in various areas but I think most leave voters would be disappointed with the way our newfound freedom is being used.
Most of the changes are likely to add complexity with little practical benefit. The proposed new Procurement Bill for example, a ‘Buy British’ policy which has been described as “not transformational”, had to be paused after it emerged during consultation that it could contravene the UK’s commitments at the World Trade Organization. And to complicate matters the devolved administration in Scotland has already opted not to follow the bill anyway.
Adding UK red tape
One area in which Sunak and the Treasury have actually proposed to ‘scrap’ EU red tape is in a new regime for charging duty on the sale of alcohol. Unfortunately, according to reports, the new UK system coming into force next year will include 27 different tariff bands instead of just three, which will “massively increase red tape, as just about everybody in the wine trade acknowledges.”
And if you’re interested in the red tape that Brexit has added, watch this video by the cabinet office with a “simple guide” to exporting to the EU. Note at the time of writing it had had a little over 300 views since 9 March 2020. Either exporters are used to the new processes or they’ve given up.
It looks like after Brexit the UK is heading for far more red tape that we ever had as an EU member, whatever Rishi Sunak pledges.