Ministers have begun a full-scale retreat over post-Brexit plans to ditch thousands of EU laws by the end of this year, after Tory peers warned they would join a mass cross-party revolt in the House of Lords.
The Observer can reveal that the government has dropped plans to hold the report stage of the Brexiters’ retained EU law bill in the Lords soon after Easter, apparently to prevent a row in the run-up to the local elections on 4 May and to allow it time to consider a list of likely concessions to rebels.
While such a climbdown risks angering hardline Tory Brexiters, including the bill’s original champion, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the extent of opposition to it from business, environmental groups, unions and Brussels has left ministers with no option but to consider delay, and moving to a scaled-down and less hurried version.
No new dates have been set for the report stage and peers now believe the much-criticised bill could be put back by months and possibly beyond the next general election.
Under the bill’s provisions, more than 4,000 EU laws kept on the UK statute book after Brexit to ensure continuity would be automatically scrapped at the end of this year, unless ministers decided that there should be exemptions.
A key complaint is the way it would cut both houses of parliament out of decisions on which EU laws should be ditched, ceding that power to unelected civil servants and ministers. This is despite the fact that Rees-Mogg and his fellow Brexiters said that leaving the EU would be a way of restoring sovereignty to parliament.
A group of Labour, Tory, Liberal Democrat and crossbench peers has been meeting in secret for weeks to discuss how to amend the bill.
While Tory and other peers are keen not to be seen to be conducting their arguments in public, the issues have united both pro-Brexit Conservatives such as former Tory minister Archie Hamilton and leading remainers, such as Patrick Cormack and former transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin.
In a speech at the second reading of the bill, Lord Cormack described it as a “constitutional monstrosity”.
David Hope, a former deputy president of the UK supreme court who sits as a crossbencher and has tabled a series of amendments, told the Observer he was not interested in scoring political points, or arguments involving Brexit versus remain, but was acting for the good of the country.
“I do not have a political agenda with regard to this bill, but my general concern is with the accuracy and workability of legislation, and the way this bill is currently framed it is not capable of doing the job it is designed to do,” he said.
A senior Tory peer with knowledge of recent talks with government figures on the future of the bill added: “What I can tell you is that discussions are going on at the highest levels. Ministers are aware that if they do not make concessions, then they there is the prospect of the government being defeated.”
Another source in the Lords said: “The penny has dropped with No 10. There is a recognition that unless they make concessions they are in ‘baby out with the bathwater’ territory. They will be causing legal chaos on many fronts for the sake of pleasing Rees-Mogg and the Tory right.”
Concern has also been rising within government departments over the amount of civil service time that the bill has been taking and, more recently, the way the legal fallout could complicate Rishi Sunak’s recently signed Windsor framework deal with Brussels on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Senior figures in Brussels have also weighed in, saying that if environmental and other standards are allowed to fall in the UK, threatening the so-called “level playing field”, this could seriously undermine the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU and potentially lead to a trade war.
A government spokesman denied that any retreat was under way, saying: “We are fully committed to the retained EU law bill, a key part of delivering our commitment of removing and reforming burdensome retained EU law.
“Once passed, the bill will enable the country to further seize the opportunities of Brexit by ensuring regulations fit the needs of the UK, helping to drive economic growth and innovation.”
The bill is now the responsibility Kemi Badenoch, the business and trade secretary. One idea understood to be under consideration is for Badenoch to announce in the coming months a list of obviously redundant EU laws that could be abolished without controversy and hail this symbolic move as proof that ministers were delivering on Brexit.
Another idea is to extend the “sunset clause” under which laws would cease to apply by at least another year, taking them beyond the likely date of the next general election, meaning the bill would in effect never come into force. Within the civil service, officials say it is inevitable that most of the EU laws will be retained.