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Brexit MPs are still waiting for Boris Johnson’s Sunlit Uplands, and they’re getting restless

While the Partygate saga continues, Johnson's critics are tiring of waiting for the prosperity-filled future Britain was promised from Brexit.

Boris Johnson poses for a photograph in front of a Union flag. Photo: Getty Images

Sue Gray’s damning, but incomplete Partygate report has not felled Boris Johnson yet, but danger skulks elsewhere, with the Brexit MPs fed up that he hasn’t delivered them even a glimpse of Sunlit Uplands.

The supposedly career-saving Operation Red Meat, which seemed to focus on angry right-wing tweets, criminalizing asylum and a confusing Nadine Dorries attempt to kill off the BBC, clearly hasn’t delivered for these critics. They want so much more.

That much is clear from article circulating on Tory WhatsApp groups in recent days – written by the Daily Telegraph’s new editor Allister Heath, and entitled: “The Conservatives Face 1997-style annihilation if they don’t stop this drift”.

Heath slams the “epidemic of rule-breaking, broken promises and generalised incompetence and carelessness”, but the remedy is pure right-wing Brexit. There needs to be a radical change – with or without Johnson – including a public sector spending freeze, less of the environmental agenda, and an immediate clear out of the “neo-socialists”, “green fanatics” and the “pro-woke crowd”. Every policy needs to be designed to make Brexit Britain competitive, improve the lives and address the fears of the culturally conservative, he says.

So far, instead of the free-market Brexit benefits trumpeted during the referendum, we have lorry queues. Or, as former Tory grandee Ken Clarke said: “2 years of Brexit and still no Alice in Wonderland. The Mat Hatter in No 10 is certainly having a party though.”

It will not do. So Johnson has reached for a reliable party trick – promising to slash EU red tape. He’s penned a column in the Daily Mail, while Number 10 has announced that there will be a new “Brexit Freedoms Bill” to allow the easy amendment or removal of EU legacy laws and published an accompanying document – the Benefits of Brexit – to mark the second anniversary of Brexit day.

None of this is long on detail. The Brexit Freedoms Bill announcement includes a pledge to cut £1 billion of red tape for business and to improve regulation, but doesn’t specify how. Published as Johnson was under attack in parliament by furious MPs, including Theresa May, the 108-page long Benefits of Brexit is equally short of meaningful content.

It outlines vague plans and promises around areas of policy, from rail to space, food to quantum computing. Even football gets a mention. Clinical medical trials will be streamlined and sped up, trade documents digitised and subsidies introduced, while the UK could depart from EU qualifications, and legal services, capital markets and stock market listing rules could changed. But we don’t really know how, and how this is linked to which piece of EU legislation that now needs to be excised.

Johnson’s Mail article is peppered with fulsome, disingenuous statements.  Johnson says the UK is now the fastest-growing economy in the G7, which is true only on one selective measure – others say fifth — and because pre-Covid the economy had slowed. He declares that Brexit means we are free of “all the vexation and delay of EU procurement rules” (but what about those dubiously-awarded Covid contracts?). 

He crows over the predictable: the vaccine roll-out (the EU were jealous) and over 60 trade deals — no matter that most are rollover EU-deals, or that the Australia deal, already of negligible benefit, is expected to harm farming, according to the government’s impact report. Then there’s cutting VAT on tampons, blue passports and crown stamps on pint glasses.  The final two were not prevented by the EU, nor were the ubiquitous, controversial freeports, namechecked every time a minister wants to praise Brexit.

Again there is is no list of laws to be slashed, but there are clues in the achievements he celebrates. One is a bill being sent to the Lords that will allow motorised lawn mowers and wheelchairs to eschew insurance if used on private land — reducing financial liability in order to cut insurance premiums. The other, the cut to air passenger duty, involves revoking a climate measure.

These chime with fears that post-Brexit, the only way to cut regulations would be to revise downwards, relaxing green policies, reducing animal welfare and watering down worker protections.

The government has regularly pledged not to do this. But again and again the reduction of safeguards are implied within the recurring words and phrases – light-touch, streamlined, and proportionate not precautionary. The Brexit buzzword, “agile” has also come to imply cutting corners, circumventing rules and not bothering with accountability.

The Brexit Freedoms Bill itself, designed to dispense with parliament to change EU-origin laws, has been criticized as a power grab. This also enraged the devolved administrations worried it will undermine devolution.  A source told the BBC that a meeting between the devolved ministers and the attorney general was “last-minute, fractious, and cack-handed”.

For businesses, mired in additional red tape thanks to the UK becoming an outsider Third Country for the EU, the reforms they want involve more cooperation with the bloc, which would reduce some of the new headaches, not a buccaneering sword through long accepted standards.

Even so, the undefined promises are thin gruel for the most ardent Brexit MPs. They’ve heard that before. Now they want regulatory blood, and that’s hard to provide. The trouble with attempts to decimate regulations is that, however irritating they may be, identifying what can safely be dispensed with is tricky. And they need replacing with care.

David Cameron had also promised a “bonfire” of regulations and quangos as prime minister. It turned out he couldn’t find as much useless, woolly regulation to destroy as he thought, and the great bonfire became a damp squib before it was quietly forgotten.

He had also pledged to “kill off health and safety culture for good”.  Last year, New Civil Engineer magazine wrote about Conservative ministers relaxing fire safety laws following the urging of the building industry to loosen “burdensome” and costly regulations – it had obtained details of the lobbying through a Freedom of Information request. This meant the contractors and consultants refurbishing Grenfell tower had less stringent regulations to work with.

As Johnson promises the same libertarian holy grail, he might like to remember that some of that dreaded red tape is there for a reason.

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