Next week, the Retained EU Law Bill will receive its Second Reading in the House of Lords and that could be the moment when Brexit reignites as an issue in UK politics. This will not be an enjoyable spectacle.
There are four interlocking issues.
The first is that, as a poll from UnHerd recently found, the electorate believes Brexit was a mistake – 54% agreed with that proposition. That is not the same as rejoining mind you, but it does mean that the optimism of 2016 and 2017 has dissipated. The word Brexit is becoming synonymous – an umbrella term – for a whole suite of problems, from inflation, to queues in the NHS or a lack of availability of carers.
If the public feels something convincingly, you would have thought that it would spark politically at some point. But on this occasion both main political parties starve what they call Bregretfulness of oxygen, as neither side want to be consumed by the flames. They cannot do so indefinitely.
Retained EU Law Bill
The second issue will arise when the Retained EU Law Bill is considered by the Lords, most likely at Committee Stage, when it is examined in detail. At first sight, this Bill is common sense. If we have left the EU, why should we not review or repeal old laws left over from that time?
The answer is that this Bill proposes that Government Departments review some 3,700 laws, the foundations for our business and economic regulatory environment, and if they are not positively adopted again, they should be repealed automatically by the end of this year.
This is a ridiculously short timetable and hands huge powers to Civil Servants conducting the reviews. There are circumstances in which the deadline can be extended to 2026, but the fact remains that it risks total economic chaos, and it is looked on with horror by businesses and investors alike.
However, the Bill is regarded as totemic by Brexiteers. Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was a good energy secretary, but whose name is on this birth certificate, issued a warning to “Remainer peers” not to tamper with the Bill. They are certain to do so.
This creates a dilemma for the Government. Either defy the Lords and press on in the Commons with a Bill opposed by business and most Ministers; or adopt some of the amendments and risk a split with a faction of its backbenchers including two former Prime Ministers, who left office after two very successful administrations. Actually, delete that. The MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip will enjoy every twist and turn.
The best, most reasonable option, would be for some sort of triage process to be set up to review regulations at a careful and selective pace. That is what the MP and former Brexit secretary, David Davis believes. He is being sensible. Whether other Brexiteers accept is hard to tell.
The Irish Question
A third issue is the Northern Ireland Protocol. The signs are the Government is inching towards some sort of deal on this. But such a deal can only occur, presumably, if it is prepared to give way on some of the EU’s demands, such as some sort of role for the European Court of Justice. Will the Brexiteers give way again? And what about the Democratic Unionist Party? They don’t like giving way, having made fools of themselves over Brexit.
Northern Ireland Assembly Elections – necessary because no administration could be formed after last year’s effort – have been repeatedly delayed but it looks like a new deadline of 13th April for an election will be hard to shift.
The critical point about the Northern Ireland Protocol is that if a way can be agreed to modify it and make it work then, it is said, the mood will improve dramatically and it will unlock agreements with the EU on much else, including travel and the participation in the Horizon Research Programme.
The fourth moving part in this dilemma is the fate of the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab. He faces an internal inquiry into bullying allegations, conducted by Adam Tolley KC at the request of Rishi Sunak. If, for the sake of argument, Mr Raab is under pressure to resign in the next two or three months, then Mr Sunak will have lost a vital Brexit support pillar for his administration.
Manners Makyth Ministers
A constant theme of these notes is that Rishi Sunak may not be perfect, but he is reasonable, well-mannered and honest, and consequently a welcome alternative to his predecessors. We wish him well. Another is that Brexit has not been the success its architects had hoped and this needs honestly addressing. Unfortunately, we live in an age of delusion, where honest conversations are hard to have in the public forum. The opinion polls suggest the electorate is more composed than the orators shouting from their stools.
From an early age, Rishi Sunak wanted to be the first Indian Prime Minister. That is what he used to tell them in Bramston’s (Trant’s), the house he was in at Winchester College. Given what he is up against we are, frankly, very lucky he spent 25 years effectively in training for the job. He is going to need not just intellect but politeness, wit, and guile to get through the coming months.
George Trefgarne is CEO and founder of Boscobel & Partners, an independent communications and political consultancy.
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