Rishi Sunak again opts for pragmatism over Brexit bombast on sunset clause

Ditching of EU law guillotine shows PM realises it is voters, not Tory ‘Spartans’, who will decide his fate

Kemi Badenoch has felt the full force of backbench Brexiters’ rage in the House of Commons after ditching the “sunset clause” in the retained EU law bill that would have automatically struck out reams of EU law at the end of the year.

“Secretary of state, what on earth are you playing at?” stormed Mark Francois, while Jacob Rees-Mogg asked whether “civil service idleness” could be to blame for the failure to scrutinise and replace sufficient legislation in time. Telegraph headline-writers blamed the Whitehall “blob”.

Badenoch’s new approach, which replaces the across-the-board sunset clause with a list of laws to be scrapped, still involves significant deregulation: trade unions have warned about the risks to workers’ rights, for example. But she and Sunak are withdrawing the widely criticised December guillotine that formed a key part of the bill as it passed through the Commons (it is currently in the Lords).

As with the Windsor framework, struck earlier this year, Sunak appears to have chosen pragmatism over Brexit bombast, even if that means irritating the hardcore leavers who propelled him to No 10.

During last summer’s Conservative leadership race, the retained EU law bill became a crude test of the candidates’ commitment to Brexit.

Liz Truss promised she would junk EU law by the end of 2023. Sunak said he would do so within 100 days of coming to power, emphasising the point with a toe-curling campaign video featuring a man literally shredding a thick wad of documents labelled “EU legislation”, accompanied by the Ode to Joy.

But in truth, like so many aspects of Brexit, the shredding exercise had become almost completely detached from the original promise of the project.

Business groups, which might have been expected to welcome a bonfire of red tape, had instead been urging the government to remove the sunset clause, warning it was creating uncertainty and instability.

Constitutional experts also sounded the alarm, warning that far from a glorious exercise of renewed UK sovereignty, the bill undermined democracy by placing too much power in the hands of ministers.

Restoring and renewing UK law after 40 years of EU membership was always going to be a complex and nuanced job, which only Brexit ideologues believed should be done in haste.

But Sunak must be acutely aware that it is not the Spartans – as Francois and his colleagues once liked to call themselves – who will determine whether he remains in Downing Street at next year’s general election, but the voters. And there is growing evidence that seven years on from the Brexit referendum, Brussels-baiting may not be at the forefront of their minds.

Analysis of last week’s local election results by Prof Stephen Fisher of Oxford University suggested Brexit could be starting to lose its hold over the public as a determinant of electoral behaviour – with the Tories doing worst in some of the places where the lure of leave helped propel Boris Johnson to victory in 2019. In a piece in Prospect, Fisher called it “the unwinding of the Brexit divide”.

That suggests Sunak’s belated turn towards pragmatism, with the Windsor framework and now the retained EU law bill, may be a better bet right now than the bullishness of Johnson and Truss.

Certainly, on the day when interest rates increased yet again, leaving many mortgage borrowers with rocketing repayments, the abandonment of the sunset clause seems unlikely to have troubled many voters.

But with gimmicks such as Sunak’s shredder stripped away, it becomes ever harder for him and his party to distract attention from the underlying question of just where the benefits of Brexit are to be found.

• This article was amended on 12 May 2023. Jacob Rees-Mogg asked whether “civil service idleness” could be to blame for the failure to scrutinise and replace sufficient legislation in time, he did not blame the failure on “civil service idleness” as an earlier version said.


Heather Stewart

The GuardianTramp

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