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Why Kemi Badenoch’s Commons showdown wasn’t as damaging as it seemed

The Business Secretary's face-down with the ERG may make her more popular with those who have grown weary of the group’s bluster.

By Zoë Grünewald

The Business Secretary, Kemi Badenoch, had a difficult day in parliament yesterday (11 May). She was summoned to the House to explain the government’s decision to U-turn on the Retained EU Law Bill, meaning it would only replace 600 laws this year rather than the 4,000 as initially planned.

Badenoch’s performance was not an easy one. Forced to go toe-to-toe with the European Research Group (ERG), an influential association of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs that has long been part of Badenoch’s support network, she was questioned for almost an hour. The ERG chair, Mark Francois, said she had performed a “massive climbdown” on the bill, asking: “What on Earth are you playing at?”

Throughout, Badenoch’s tone irked both backbenchers and the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. An almost incandescent Hoyle admonished her for announcing the U-turn in the Telegraph, rather than in the House. When Badenoch responded, “I’m very sorry that the sequencing we chose was not to your satisfaction,” Hoyle exploded. Her performance, sarcastic and fractious, left many wondering if Badenoch has scuppered any chances of future leadership candidacy.

Badenoch isn’t finished yet. Though some took issue with Badenoch’s attitude to the Speaker and parliament, there are clear parallels with the approach of Boris Johnson. The former prime minister often ignored parliamentary precedent when announcing policy (and attempted to unlawfully prorogue parliament to force through his Brexit plans), which curried him favour with those in the electorate and his party who had grown weary of the Whitehall blob and parliamentary obstructions. Badenoch’s disdain for parliamentary procedure will not necessarily worry supporters.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s best man: can James Forsyth help save the Conservatives?]

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Secondly, rowing with the ERG is not the fight it once was. For months, the ERG has been slowly growing less significant compared to the influential force it was under Theresa May. Since Rishi Sunak quashed a rebellion over the Windsor framework and brought several key figures into his government, including Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland Minister, and Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, the group has looked increasingly split and irrelevant.

Thirdly, although many in the chamber were unhappy with Badenoch’s decision, influential Brexiteers, including David Davis and Martin Vickers, have publicly backed the government’s decision to row back on the legislation. Those who oppose it are no longer a cohesive group that can successfully hold the government to ransom over votes, especially on a decision that has the backing of the opposition.

Throughout, Badenoch said she was happy to take a pragmatic approach, and that the U-turn would provide the government with scope “for longer term and more ambitious reforms”. Her decision to publicly face down the ERG may well make her more popular with those Tories who have grown weary of the group’s bluster, and with the growing group of MPs who have come to acknowledge the need for a more measured approach to Brexit.

[See also: We should applaud Kemi Badenoch for taking on the Brexiteers]

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