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Revoking campaign pledges prove as challenging as revoking EU Law

Public Affairs

Close followers of last year’s Conservative leadership elections may remember one of Rishi Sunak’s campaign videos, which showed a faceless staffer shredding thousands of pages of EU legislation, whilst pledging to ‘keep Brexit safe’. The last 24 hours has seen the government embroiled in a major row with some of its backbenchers as they are accused of selling out on that pledge.  

Secretary of State for Business and Trade Kemi Badenoch was hauled before the Commons this morning by the Speaker to answer an Urgent Question, after attempting to slip out a significant change to the way the UK will treat retained EU law in a newspaper article and short written statement yesterday. 

When the UK left the EU, it had around 4,000 pieces of legislation still in effect in UK law. The Prime Minister had pledged to scrap this by the end of 2023 in a bonfire of Brussels rules and regulations, and this was given effect by the Retained EU Law Bill currently going through Parliament. The Bill had already completed its passage in the Commons, achieving the rare feat of uniting Conservative backbenchers, with none voting against the Second and Third Reading.  

Behind the scenes, however, ministers and civil servants were dealing with the practicality of the hastily made pledge. Rumours have been doing the rounds for some time in Westminster that the situation was untenable, and the Retained EU Law Bill was paused in the Lords before Easter. The government has now bowed to the inevitable, switching to identifying which EU laws will be repealed, rather than removing all 4,000 in one go. 

The fury from the right of the Conservative party was predictable. Former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg accused the government of caving in to the ‘blob’, that the Prime Minister had ‘broken his word’ and queried whether the U-turn had come about because of ‘civil service idleness or lack of ministerial drive.’ Bill Cash, the long-standing Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee and ardent Eurosceptic demanded the Secretary of State defer the Lords stages of the Bill and appear before his committee, while other Conservative backbenchers accused the Business and Trade Secretary of ‘showing a tin ear’ and failing to respect Parliament. 

Moving away from the heat and light of the reaction in the Commons, movement on this issue has been coming for some time. For months businesses have been grappling with the uncertainty created by the legislation, denting confidence and potential planned investment. 

There were also real practical issues. The speed required to complete the review of 4,000 laws and decide what to scrap and what to keep has proved impossible – to do so in the required time left no scope for parliamentary scrutiny, nor for involving the devolved governments. It also took up a huge amount of departmental time, with the risk that significant mistakes would be made that would have consequences for the UK internal market, Windsor Framework, or risk retaliation from the EU and reduced market access.  

Untangling our complicated legislative framework of nearly 50 years with the EU was always going to take a long time if it was to be done properly. Simply revoking all EU law was a promise Rishi Sunak made for the Conservative leadership campaign and is completely at odds with his careful and thoughtful style of governing. Rowing back has created a party management issue with his backbenchers, and doing so in the aftermath of the significant losses at the local elections will cause problems, though there is no prospect of a leadership challenge. 

If there is a lesson to be learned it is this: the pledge may have sounded good on the campaign trail, but the Prime Minister is this evening perhaps regretting making European promises that Bill can’t Cash…