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Kemi Badenoch Is Undeterred By Brexiteer Fury Over EU Law U-turn

Kemi Badenoch (Alamy)

5 min read

A defiant Kemi Badenoch has stood by her decision to significantly slow down the plan for dealing with thousands of pieces of European Union law, despite fierce opposition from Brexit hardliners in her party.

The trade secretary's announcement yesterday that plans to do away with laws inherited from Brussels would be watered down, coupled with her combative responses to Brexiteers in the House of Commons on Thursday, reflects a growing confidence by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's government to take on the hardline Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party. 

Speaking in the Commons this morning, Badenoch insisted that her new approach was the pragmatic one.

"It is delightful to see the Labour frontbench and the ERG to be on same side for once," she told MPs. 

"It makes me realise that if I am upsetting people on both sides I'm probably taking the pragmatic middle ground and I'm very pleased to be doing so." 

The government plans to amend the Retained EU Law Bill to remove a contentious sunset clause that would have seen thousands of EU laws automatically fall away at the end of the year. The sunset clause was a key part of the legislation in its original form, but triggered expert warnings that it risked chaos for affected businesses. Badenoch has now admitted that the sheer volume of laws covered by the bill made "meaningful reform" too difficult, and that the process facing departments had become an exercise in reducing "legal risk".

The announcement nevertheless triggered outrage among many staunch Leavers, as well as accusations that civil servants tasked with delivering the legislation were thwarting efforts to deliver Brexit.

Badenoch fielded fury from hardline Brexit Tory MPs in an Urgent Question about the government move on Thursday.

David Jones, deputy chair of the ERG challenged Badenoch to appear before the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee next week to explain what he described as the business and trade secretary's "volte-face".

Jacob Rees Mogg, the ex-business secretary, asked Badenoch to explain whether the decision the retain the majority of EU laws inherited from the UK's past membership beyond 2023 "has come about because of civil service idleness, or a lack of ministerial drive".

But there is a feeling at the top of government that fury with Sunak and Badenoch – who themselves campaigned to leave the EU – is confined to a small number of Tory Conservative MPs in the ERG whose power has been significantly diminished.

A government sourced pointed to the House of Commons vote on Sunak's Windsor deal for Northern Ireland in March, when just 22 Tory back benches ended up voting against the agreement with Brussels despite warnings of a much larger rebellion, as an example. 

The ERG, which advocates harder forms of Brexit, has been a potent force in Westminster politics in recent years, playing a key part in the fall of ex-prime minister Theresa May and Leave-ringleader Boris Johnson's ascension to No.10. The group has dwindled both in number and influence more recently, however, partly due to some of its key members taking up ministerial jobs.

Legal experts had warned that the original end-of-year deadline to revise and replace or recycle EU laws on UK statute books left Whitehall with the significant task of wading though thousands of EU laws in just a matter of months, and created unnecessary uncertainty for businesses affected by changes to the UK regulations.

Instead, the government will revoke around 600 laws by the end of the year, and leave the majoity of the regulations on the statute books beyond 2023 for future consideration. The government says there are around 4,800 laws inherited from the UK's previous EU membership.

The revised strategy has also been welcomed by business groups who have spent months lobbying ministers to remove the arbitrary sunset clause from their plans. 

Sir Philip Rycroft, who was permanent secretary at the now defunct Department for Exiting the EU between 2017 and 2019, said businesses would be "relieved" by Badenoch's decision to drop the timeline. 

"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 told PoliticsHome.

Sir Jonathan Jones, the former head of the government legal department, said the change in approach to dealing with EU law announced on Wednesday "represents a very welcome outbreak of common sense after what had been an absurd and unworkable model".

He said the bill could be improved further, however, by removing the legal uncertainty created by changing existing principles of interpretation, and by the government including a commitment in law to consulting those affected by future changes to retained EU law.

Bob Neill, the Tory MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and chair of House of Commons justice committee, told Badenoch the changes to the bill meant many Tory MPs were "better placed" to support it, describing the revised approach as "very Conservative and pro-business".

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