The Retained EU Law Bill is passing through its final stages in the Commons. It is the last reckless and desperate move from the Brexit headbangers that have done so much to derail their own political project due to their own dogmatism and ignorance. This is being facilitated by the Prime Minister who promised to steady the ship after the chaos of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Further proof, if any more were needed, that Rishi Sunak is not the man he presents himself to be.

Truss had such a short-lived and hapless time as prime minister that it was easy for Rishi Sunak to advertise himself as competent. Here was a grown-up technocrat who could sensibly manage the country and its ailing economy; after all, he was right about his predecessors’ economic policies. Yet here he is fast tracking an incredibly ill-conceived Bill with a deeply irresponsible disregard for the consequences, all to appease people who have been consistently wrong in their ideas and proclamations about Brexit.

Back in 2016, when I and many others were campaigning for a pragmatic approach to leaving the European Union, I made the case that we should repatriate the entire body of EU law applicable to the UK to ensure continuity and minimise disruption while avoiding a massive burden on the Civil Service and regulatory uncertainty for business. This then would allow the government to conduct a considered, long-term review of the UK statute book, allowing us to amend or repeal EU law over time.

The first part was done with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which retained EU-derived legislation as a new category of domestic law (“retained” EU law). However, instead of sensibly reviewing the law and unpicking it over time, giving due consideration to the potential impacts, the government has decided instead that it should be reviewed in a mad dash within a year working towards a completely arbitrary deadline.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, then BEIS Secretary, introduced the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill which includes a sunset clause meaning all retained EU law expires at the end of 2023 unless the government actively does something to preserve the legal position. This Bill is championed by all the same people who told us we held all the cards in negotiations, that negotiations would be simple, that having no deal at all would be fine, and pushed to make the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement as thin as possible.

The result of this has been that the UK’s various economic ailments, many of which we share with other countries, have been amplified due to self-inflicted structural weakness. There is plenty of evidence to show now that the approach to Brexit championed by hardliners has resulted in reduced trade, less investment and a hit to tax revenues estimated at an annual £40bn (enough to have avoided most of the spending cuts we’re going to have to suffer). The Centre for European Reform estimated that UK GDP is 5.5 per cent smaller because of how Brexit has been implemented.

Now, take these forecasts and estimations with a pinch of salt if you like, but the fact is that the UK is the only major economy not to have returned to its pre-pandemic size. Thus far, leaving the EU has not been a success and a great part of this responsibility goes to the uncompromising ideologues in parliament whose ideas on Brexit are consistently proven wrong. They have turned the public against their own project, with people who think Brexit was a mistake now consistently outnumbering those with no regrets by a significant margin.

Yet here we are, being hurled headfirst into another debacle of their creation, and our oh-so-sensible, competent Prime Minister is meekly going along with it. The kamikaze Brexiteers are taking advantage of his weakness and his vapidity, and once again leading us to the promised land of freedom and prosperity. Anyone who warns against this act of folly is a traitor attempted to spurn Brexit and hold Britain back.

So despite the state of the UK economy and the problems building up in the country right now, the government will dedicate a huge amount of resource within Whitehall to reviewing or revoking 4,000 pieces of EU originated legislation by the end of the year. Businesses will, in-turn, have to dedicate resource to managing and adjusting to this rushed process.

The laws under review cover a vast array of areas from cyber security to consumers and workers’ rights, from procurement to intellectual property. This is complicated, no matter how many times Jacob Rees-Mogg insists it is simple (just like him and his ilk insisted the whole process of Brexit would be simple) it is not simple and there is great scope for negative and unintended consequences. The Bill creates uncertainty and instability for regulators, industry, employers and investors. It is yet another act of self-harm.

There is no reasonable justification for the Bill. It’s the last act of the Conservative Europhobe right who believe everything associated with the EU is alien and bad, so they’re trying to burn it all down before they are out of government. The notion that EU-derived law must be repealed as a matter of urgency because it was imposed undemocratically and is therefore illegitimate is highly dubious. This law wasn’t something imposed on the UK or “done to us”.

Much of EU law was strongly influenced and promoted by the UK, and the UK participated in the lawmaking process. Yes, there were times when we lost votes and the government of the day didn’t agree with every law made in the EU, but the 2018 Withdrawal Act gave us the opportunity to amend and repeal law via our ordinary legislative process.

In any case, this Bill itself is anti-democratic. It hands sweeping powers to the executive to revoke, replace or restate legislation without proper parliamentary oversight. The Tory MP Bob Neill commented: “We have Henry VIII powers so wide that all scrutiny is effectively removed from this House… that’s not taking back control, that’s actually doing the reverse of what the government seeks to do.”

There is no provision for proper consultation and no criteria on which ministers will base their decision making on when deciding what should be revoked, replaced or amended. We simply don’t know what ministers intend to do with all these laws in this mad rush, and the bill is handing them an extraordinary amount of discretion to do as they please.

This, I contend, is in violation of the spirit of Brexit. Was it not intended to restore and reinvigorate British democracy? Were we not called to Take Back Control for parliament? I’m quite sure a great many of the supporters of this bill made that case, surely it wasn’t all disingenuous bluster?

We need to make Brexit work and this is not how. The Retained EU Law Bill has the potential to do harm and very little good. Amidst a cost-of-living crisis this bill is unlikely to bring great benefit to anyone’s life, yet a huge amount of energy and resource will be spent on it.

If Rishi Sunak really was competent and a safe pair of hands, he’d have been kicking this into the long grass. In his leadership campaign he gave himself a little wriggle room by promising to replace retained EU law that is “holding us back”, he should focus on a few select sectors to review this year for potential “easy wins” and then delay the rest until 2026. Unfortunately, that is a pretty big “if”. 

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