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28 April 2023

Rishi Sunak’s U-turn on the Brexit Bonfire Bill threatens his party’s uneasy coalition

Eurosceptic Tories have already begun to question the strength of the government’s commitment to taking back control.

By Zoë Grünewald

The Financial Times has revealed that the UK government is abandoning plans to review or scrap all 4,000 pieces of retained EU law by the end of this year. Instead, it will remove just 800 – or 20 per cent – of those originally planned. The move comes after businesses and trade unions wrote to the government, arguing that the 2023 deadline has created mass uncertainty and may lead to the loss of key protections.

In November Bloomberg reported that senior officials had asked the Prime Minister to consider delaying the bonfire of EU laws until 2026. That civil servants may have played a part in delaying a key piece of Brexit legislation is likely to deepen war between the civil service and MPs over bullying allegations and politically motivated obstructions.

Critics of the “sunset clause”, by which the retained EU laws would be automatically revoked at the end of 2023, have cited multiple reasons for their opposition. They say it’s bad for businesses and disincentivises investment, and have voiced concerns over the potential loss of workers’ rights, standards and environmental regulations. An ally of the Business Secretary, Kemi Badenoch, all but confirmed the move, telling the FT that although they want to “streamline regulation” they won’t be “getting rid of stuff for its own sake”: “We want to do it properly. It has to be done line by line. These things need proper thought and consideration, not blanket scrapping.”

Watch: Ben Walker meets councillors and candidates ahead of the local elections

Eurosceptic Tories have already begun to question the strength of the government’s commitment to taking back control. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading European Research Group (ERG) member and architect of the sunset clause, has dubbed the move “an apparent lack of ambition”. Rishi Sunak’s reputation for getting Brexit done efficiently and with his party’s support could well be under threat.

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By bringing multiple ERG members and supporters into his government, Sunak has thus far neutralised much of their threat by giving them responsibility for difficult policy areas. Should they be successful, the ERG seems influential. Should they fail or disagree, it may start to splinter. As such, it is intriguing that the stinging news was delivered MPs by none other than the ERG-backed Badenoch. Many view Badenoch as the future leader of the party as she represents a marked shift to the right and has quickly gathered support. Badenoch appearing to take the advice of civil servants and trade bodies to U-turn on key Brexit legislation is not a good look for this hard-nosed Brexiteer and may well harm her ambitions.

[See also: PMQs today: Rishi Sunak’s non-dom comment leaves the PM exposed]

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