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Kemi Badenoch Tells Brexit Detractors She's "Not An Arsonist"

Secretary of State for Business and Trade Kemi Badenoch (Alamy)

4 min read

Cabinet minister Kemi Badenoch has told staunch Brexiteers in the Tory party "I am not an arsonist, I'm a Conservative" in a lively committee session focused on the government's recent watering down of plans to do away with thousands of European Union laws by the end of the year.

Badenoch, the secretary of state for business and trade, defended the move in her appearance before the European Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday, following criticism from the Conservative party's most hardline Eurosceptics that it undermined the UK's exit from the EU.

The session was the latest example of Badenoch, who campaigned to leave the bloc in 2016, being willing to take on fellow Brexiteers in the Conservative party, who complain that Rishi Sunak's government is not doing enough to embrace the perceived opportunities of leaving the EU.

"What I saw was a process that was doing the opposite of what it was intended to do. The Retained EU Law Bill became a process of retaining EU law. That is not what we wanted," she said.

“I am not an arsonist, I am a Conservative. I don’t think a bonfire of regulations is what we wanted. What we wanted was reform and removal of the things we did not need.”

PoliticsHome reported last month that there is a feeling at the top of government that fury with Sunak, Badenoch and the government was confined to a small, hard Brexit section of the parliamentary Conservative party whose power has significantly diminished.

The European Scrutiny Committee, led by Tory MP Bill Cash, had demanded that Badenoch take questions after she announced last month she would amend the Retained EU Law Bill to remove a contentious sunset clause which faced opposition from many industries and peers. 

The clause would have meant thousands of EU laws disappearing from the UK statute book at the end of this year, unless departments decided to retain them. Experts warned that it was an insurmountable task for civil servants and risked chaos for affected industries. Badenoch acknowledged last month that the sheer volume of laws covered by the bill had made "meaningful reform" too difficult, and that the process had in reality become an exercise in reducing "legal risk".

The move was welcomed by experts. Sir Philip Rycroft, former permanent secretary at the now defunct Department for Exiting the EU between 2017 and 2019, who told PoliticsHome at the time businesses would be "relieved" by the dropping of the timeline. Sir Jonathan Jones, the former head of the government legal department, said the change in approach was "a very welcome outbreak of common sense after what had been an absurd and unworkable model".

"The government's decision is a recognition of the impossibility of dumping so much law from the UK statute book in such a short space of time without causing regulatory chaos," Rycroft said.

It infuriated ardent Brexiteers on the Tory back benchers, however, who claimed ministers had given to pressure from what they described as Europhile officials and members of the House of Lords.

At today's committee hearing, Badenoch stood by the move with full-throated defence of her actions. She told MPs it was "her decision" which the Prime Minister, also a staunch Brexiteer, needed persuading to support.

The move reduced uncertainty for affected industries, particularly small-to-medium-sized businesses, and gave Whitehall departments sufficient time to make meaningful decisions about which EU regulations should be retained post-Brexit, the Cabinet minister argued.

Badenoch explained that "no-one knew what was being revoked or reformed" before she took the decision, and that she was not going to let the potential unintended consequences of sticking with the December 2023 sunset clause "happen on my watch".

In a heated exchange with Conservative MP David Jones, who is a leading member of the European Research Group of staunch Brexiteers, Badenoch refuted his claim that she had disrespected the House of Commons by changing legislation that already secured its approval, and went on to accuse him of leaking private discussions to the media. 

“Something you’re not saying is that we had private meetings, David, where we discussed this extensively because I knew you had concerns," the business and trade secretary said.

"It’s public knowledge that we had private meetings, because when I thought I was having private and confidential meetings, I was reading the content in the Daily Telegraph.”

Badenoch continued: "What is the point of us as MPs voting through legislation that is not doing what we want it to do just so we can say 'well we have passed this legislation'?

"Our job is to deliver for the people of this country and what the people of this country want is reform which makes their lives better, not just saying we have deleted things from the statute book."

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