Rishi Sunak is under pressure from rightwing Tory MPs to stick to a 2023 deadline for reviewing or scrapping EU-era laws on the UK statute book, warning that Labour will exploit any delay at the next election.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, former business secretary, said Labour would claim the Conservatives had a secret agenda to abolish sensitive workplace and environmental protections if the exercise were not completed before an election, expected in 2024.
Rees-Mogg was the architect of the government’s retained EU law bill, which includes a “sunset clause” where any EU-derived legislation that had not been reviewed or revoked before the end of 2023 would automatically expire.
Tory MPs in the pro-Brexit European Research Group said Sunak should quickly complete the audit so it is clear before the next election which EU laws the government intended to keep.
“We need to settle this by the 2023 deadline otherwise Labour will use this at the next election and create all sorts of stories about how we intend to scrap workplace rights and environmental regulations,” Rees-Mogg told the Financial Times. “We need to get on with it.”
Business and trade unions have strongly criticised Rees-Mogg’s effort to purge the UK statute book of EU laws, saying it creates uncertainty and disruption. Pro-Brexit Tory MPs have insisted it would boost productivity.
Rees-Mogg’s latest comments are likely to surprise his critics, given that as business secretary he was part of a government that considered scrapping EU employment and green laws.
He wanted to abolish some EU workers’ rights legislation, but his initiative was quashed by Liz Truss, the then prime minister.
Truss also wanted to loosen EU environmental laws to allow more development in investment zones, but her shortlived premiership meant that she never got to pursue the plan.
Rees-Mogg now fears Labour could exaggerate the scale of the deregulating zeal of a future Tory government.
Sunak told the House of Commons liaison committee this month he wanted to complete the review of EU laws — which could affect up to 4,000 pieces of legislation — “as quickly as possible”, but suggested he would like to target areas where it would make the most difference.
He cited life sciences, digital and data, financial and professional services as areas “where we will want to take advantage of the new flexibilities and sovereignty that we have to do things differently” after Brexit.
The government said: “The programme to review, revoke and reform retained EU law is under way and there are no plans to change the 2023 sunset deadline.”
However, Sunak noted provisions in the retained EU law bill that allowed for some “flexibility” — ministers can specifically ask to delay a decision on a piece of EU legislation until June 2026 at the latest.
Another senior Tory from the European Research Group said: “We’ve been talking to Number 10 and we’ve been assured they won’t shift the deadline back to 2026. If they did, there would be trouble.”
Government insiders said it was clearly not Sunak’s intention for all retained EU laws to survive until 2026, but one added the exercise would be conducted at a “sane” pace.
Meanwhile, Sunak is focusing the government’s legislative reforms in 2023 on areas that matter most to voters, according to his allies.
They said legislation to toughen up Britain’s asylum system will be introduced in the new year, as the government tries to curb the number of people crossing the English Channel in small boats.
Sunak has also said he is drawing up anti-strike legislation that will limit the impact of industrial action on key public services.
The prime minister has delayed the King’s Speech — outlining the government’s legislative reforms for the next parliamentary session — until autumn 2023 to give him more time to get existing bills on to the statute book. A “levelling up” bill to narrow regional inequalities is one key priority.
Some big pieces of legislation have been put on hold, including justice secretary Dominic Raab’s “bill of rights”, which would repeal and replace Tony Blair’s 1998 Human Rights Act. Raab insists his bill will ultimately proceed.
The government is also expected to shelve the privatisation of broadcaster Channel 4 — a move that had been due for inclusion in a media bill.