We have reached a watershed moment in the long Brexit saga. The government’s U-turn this week on the Great Repeal Bill has laid bare the great elephant-sized conundrum that has always been at the heart of Brexit: identifying any significant EU laws that were both holding Britain back and can be ditched without damaging our own economy.
Thanks to the government’s ham-fisted attempt to scrap 4,000 of those EU laws by the end of the year, reversed by Kemi Badenoch’s heavily trailed statement on Thursday, we are about to discover that the answer to that question is almost certainly a big fat zero.
All the righteous talk of ‘barmy EU bureaucrats’ with their bent banana and crazy cucumber rules has fallen away to silence. Instead of immediately dumping over the side the most egregious Brussels-made laws that have weighed us down these past 40 years, Brexiters are scrambling to find anything of substance at all.
Japanese carnations and Polish canal boats
The business secretary, addressing furious Tory MPs in the House, said that the target would now be reduced to a more modest 600 plus a further 500 in the financial services and markets bill and the procurement bill, both at about the same stage in parliament as the REUL bill. It is like watching a farcical dance of the seven veils that never ends.
Badenoch claimed 1,000 pieces had already been reformed or revoked although the official dashboard last put the actual figure at 671 mainly expired, inconsequential EU laws not related to the UK or with replacements simply ‘mirroring’ the equivalent EU regulations. However, the dashboard was showing the dreaded ‘404 not found’ error message on Friday, as if even that had given up.
A new list of the 600 scheduled to go by the end of the year has now been published. The Telegraph quickly noticed that the latest batch is more of the same with a report describing the latest rules being dropped as “outdated and irrelevant EU decisions on subjects such as Japanese carnations and Polish canal boats” with many relating to “decisions or to policies and projects reserved for bloc members only”.
Cutting red tape is a sick joke
A written ministerial statement said the government, “will no longer tie business up in red tape” and Badenoch later told MPs this was “the first in a series of announcements that the government will be making on reforming regulations to drive growth”.
It’s hard to see that scrapping any of the retained EU laws that we know of so far will turbo charge economic growth in Britain. The pledge to no longer tie businesses up in red tape will seem like a sick joke to companies that have exchanged, for example, being unencumbered by an EU rule (2012/19/EU) granting fishing rights to certain vessels off the coast of French Guiana, for a daily mountain of bureaucracy. It will hardly seem a bargain.
And who will rejoice at the ditching of the EU (Definition of Treaties) (Association The whole Order Agreement) (Central America) Order 2018 – or any of the other 599 regulations destined for the scrapheap by the end of December? Who was actually being restrained by them?
Brexit is starting to unravel
What we are witnessing in real time – and don’t under estimate this – is the slow unravelling of Brexit itself. There are almost certainly no great gains to be made. Business has no appetite for wholesale regulatory divergence with its largest overseas market. The UK-EU trade and cooperation agreement allows retaliatory measures if the UK tries to gain a competitive advantage anyway, which will limit what might be economically possible without further damage to trade.
Brexiters who pushed for the hardest possible Brexit were right in this respect; there was no point in leaving the EU, if we were to continue to fully align with EU law. That would have been irrational. Therefore we had to exit the single market and the customs union and once that decision was made, divergence was the only the logical path.
Unfortunately, divergence is much harder to deliver than the government thought. Business and industry don’t want it and it’s doubtful that the voters find employment and consumer rights too burdensome. It seems highly unlikely that any governing party would go into an election promising to slash workplace safety, employment rights or environmental laws.
But unless we can diverge, there is little point to Brexit. Why remain outside the single market when your own domestic regulations are only marginally different?
What else did we learn this week?
The U-turn tells us not that the civil service ‘blob’ is a bunch of lazy, incompetent fifth columnists intent on thwarting Brexit, but that the current Conservative parliamentary party is incomparably stupid. No Tory MP voted against second reading of the REUL bill when it was debated in the Commons last year. The 297 who voted in favour all thought it was not just a jolly good idea, but quite achievable too.
Jacob Rees-Mogg yesterday put the blame on “snowflakey, work shy civil servants” for the problem. But when he launched the bill in September it is certain that senior officials warned him that the task and the deadline was impossible and a humiliating climbdown was inevitable. He should be the one to shoulder most of the blame.
And note the deputy political editor of The Sunday Times, Harry Yorke, tweeted:
Yorke was told ‘months ago’ that neither the then business secretary Grant Shapps, the chancellor Jeremy Hunt, nor the prime minister, believed the target of scrapping 4,000 EU laws by the end of the year was viable. This despite Rishi Sunak producing a video showing him personally shredding 2,400 EU laws in his first 100 days in office.
Thus we learned the present cowardly leadership of the Conservative Party isn’t averse to sending troops over the top to commit themselves to a hopeless cause in which they themselves didn’t believe.
An almighty row is brewing, but this is the least of their problems. Brexit itself is at risk.