If the Government wants to get on with Brexit de-regulation, it needs to put ministers clearly in charge

1 Feb

Yesterday, exactly two years after the UK left the European Union, the Government announced a “Brexit Freedoms Bill”. Its purpose is to “end the special status of EU law” and “ensure that it can be more easily amended or removed.” 

The Government has estimated that it will cut £1 billion of red tape for UK businesses through the removal of EU regulations, much of which were kept on as a “messy compromise”, as its announcement put it, from hurried negotiations.

Soon after the announcement, Boris Johnson tweeted that “we have taken back control of our money, our borders and laws”. But others haven’t been so sure that Britain has, specifically around legal and regulatory matters.

One newspaper today reports, for instance, that the Government has watered down plans “to ditch Brussels regulations” put together by David Frost, the former Brexit Minister, because they weren’t compatible with its net zero plans.

This has already led to intense criticism of the Government and Prime Minister. At best, they are sending out mixed messages about the extent to which they will light a “bonfire of EU rules”, as media reports have suggested.

It’s long been known that one of the major selling points of leaving the EU was the opportunity to become truly independent, including a divergence from the trade bloc’s regulations, many of which have been blamed for stifling the potential of British businesses. Solvency II, for example, was singled out by Theresa Villiers yesterday in ConservativeHome, which she blamed for forcing “UK-based insurers to hold too much capital back”.

Villiers has been part of a taskforce asked by Johnson to look into how the UK can de-regulate effectively. She, Iain Duncan Smith and George Freeman compiled a 130-page report last year, setting out 100 recommendations for this, based on consultations with businesses, academics, think tanks and colleagues, among other experts, so as to help Britain fulfil its potential.

But today’s news – as well as it being almost a year since the taskforce released its suggestions – hint at wider issues with the Government’s de-regulatory project. First, there are clearly disputes about how far it should go in cutting the red tape. Second, and partly why the Government is sending out contradictory messages, is that there has been no official replacement for Frost since he stepped down in his role last December.

Since his departure, Liz Truss, as recently appointed Foreign Secretary, has been tasked with overseeing the Northern Ireland Protocol; one of the biggest briefs of a Brexit Minister. But government insiders are keen for designated ministers to handle regulatory reform, and hold Whitehall’s feet to the fire.

One contender for having overall oversight of such a project is Steve Barclay, currently serving as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. However, the responsibility could be shared. Freeman, a member of the taskforce and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Research and Innovation is reportedly keen to manage the 10 sectors most in need of reform, having written about them in great detail in the 130-page report, and feeling that these areas fall naturally into his department.

Given that it has been two years since Brexit, as we have been reminded this week, the delay over action on regulations is not what one would call a “good look” for the Government. With the pandemic, as well as the partygate saga hanging over the Prime Minister’s head, it’s no surprise that Number 10 has been slow to appoint a new Brexit Minister/ authority, or even make noises about the need for it.

But the clock is ticking. With Johnson’s enemies keen to ram home that his government, as well as Brexit, has been a disaster, getting a “Reformer in Chief” is the fastest way to “take back control”.