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By Baroness Hoey
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Rishi Sunak Challenged To “Face Down" Tory Brexit "Hardliners" To Fix The Economy

Rishi Sunak has denied his government would pursue a "Swiss-style" arrangement with the EU post-Brexit (Alamy)

4 min read

Former Tory MP David Gauke, who was a Cabinet minister in David Cameron and Theresa May's governments, has urged Rishi Sunak to “face down the hardliners in his parliamentary party” over Brexit or risk making “a bad economic situation worse”.

Gauke has consistently been a vocal critic of Brexit and was voted out of parliament in the 2019 General Election after losing the Conservative whip and running as an Independent. 

Three years on, with Sunak's government still wrangling with opposing views on the UK's ongoing relationship with the EU, Gauke told PoliticsHome he believes some Conservative MPs are advocating for a set of policies “that would risk a trade war”, and the prime minister must not be “bullied” into agreeing with them.

Earlier this week The Sunday Times reported that the government could consider pursuing a “Swiss-style” agreement with the European Union that would allow greater access to the single market in exchange for looser immigration rules. 

Pro-Brexit Tories responded angrily to the suggestion, citing it as evidence that Sunak was backsliding on his commitment to Brexit. Sunak has long been a proponent of leaving the EU, and was promoted to the role of Chancellor in March 2020 when former Prime Minister Boris Johnson assembled his pro-Brexit Cabinet.

Speaking on this week's episode of PoliticsHome podcast, The Rundown, Gauke said that post-Brexit policies endorsed by Sunak's critics in the Tory party could prove "economically damaging".

In particular he pointed to the EU Retained Law Bill, which seeks to remove or revise all laws originally aligned with the bloc from UK legislation. On Thursday the FT reported that a number of leading business and industry organisations, including the Institute of Directors, Trades Union Congress and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, had written to government with a plea to halt their so-called "bonfire" of EU laws by the end of this year arguing that the disruption caused could be economically damaging. 

“Basically businesses don't know what regulations they're going to be operating under in a few months time, that doesn't make any sense,” Gauke explained. 

He also felt that the UK needed to soften its stance on the Northern Ireland Protocol, which creates trade barriers in the Irish sea in order to avoid a hard border with EU member the Republic of Ireland, and has been an ongoing source of tension since it came into force in 2021. Removing it, which would appeal to unionist local parties, would currently require agreeing to EU terms such as allowing the European Court of Justice to have some oversight of trade disputes in the region.

“If we're really going to dig in on that issue, and risk a trade war, that would be absurd, in any circumstances, particularly in the current circumstances," Gauke continued. 

“So I think Sunak does have to face down the hardliners in his parliamentary party, because they seem determined to make a bad economic situation worse, and were he to basically be bullied into taking their position, then the economic damage that will follow would be extraordinary in the circumstances.”

Gauke said he understood why Sunak was in a difficult position politically, but believed given the position the country is in, he needs to stand up to MPs, and ask, "are we really, really going to make this matter worse?”

Speaking at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in Birmingham on Monday, Sunak said he was "unequivocal" in his commitment to Brexit, in comments that were widely considered to be a rebuttal of suggestions of a Swiss-style Brexit

“The United Kingdom will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws,” the prime minister said.

"I voted for Brexit. I believe in Brexit and I know that Brexit can deliver, and is already delivering, enormous benefits and opportunities for the country."

There remains, however, a belief among some Tories that despite Sunak’s pro-Brexit credentials, the government might be ready to concede on elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and delays to the legislation that will delete up to 4,000 EU laws from UK statute books.

  • For the full discussion with David Gauke listen to The Rundown podcast this week, out now


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