As the partygate furore rages on, Boris Johnson is retreating towards familiar territory: Brexit. A policy blitz is underway this week and the issue that guided him to power in 2019 has come first, with the announcement of a new Brexit Freedoms Bill. It will be brought forward to mark the two-year anniversary since we parted ways with the European Union.
There are two flaws with Boris’s plan, however. First, recent polling found 46 per cent of Leave voters who backed the Tories in 2019 say he should resign, suggesting that Brexit doesn’t resonate in quite the same way as it did before the pandemic.
Second, governments of the past two decades have presided over a steady but significant shift towards a larger, more powerful state which has limited the room for manoeuvre for both individuals and businesses. And Johnson's government is no different. Regulation is now a one-way ratchet, where politicians pay lip service to 'bonfires of red tape' while behind the scenes they’ve not even laid the kindling. Johnson's government is identifying as 'Thatcherite' while hiking taxes and aspiring to slash regulation while introducing more pettifogging laws. Both are economically damaging, stifling entrepreneurship, innovation and job creation.
Yesterday’s announcement was accompanied by a new 'Benefits of Brexit' policy document setting out how 'the government is using new freedoms… to transform the UK into the best regulated economy in the world'. The crucial words in this sentence are 'best' and 'regulated'. Contrary to what many in government appear to believe, post-Brexit regulations are not inherently meritorious because they were concocted in Whitehall. Gender pay gap reporting, mandatory net-zero plans, new online harms legislation, regulations on where shopkeepers can display chocolate bars, anti-terror measures for venues and mandatory bee bricks in Brighton are neither 'smarter' nor 'better' than anything imposed by Brussels.
It turns out that the 'Benefits of Brexit' constitutes the government’s entire response to its extensive 'reforming the framework for better regulation' consultation — which was launched last year to set out how to improve the regulatory framework. As if this wasn’t evidence enough of how trivially the government is taking deregulation, the 108-page document doesn’t even mention employment law — presumably because its authors understand that suggesting liberalisation would draw accusations policymakers are attempting to drag the nation back to the 19th century.
Taking on new workers now comes with an astonishing array of obligations: yet one of Kwasi Kwarteng’s first moves upon being appointed Business Secretary was to scrap a review brought in under his predecessor. Alok Sharma had reportedly been considering changes to the 48-hour weekly working limit, holiday pay entitlements and a number of other minor alterations to employment rights. When pressed on the issue, Kwarteng sniffed that he was not interested in 'whittling away workers’ rights or trying to have a race to the bottom or trying to reduce wages'.
This sort of language propagates the myth that the cost of regulation is borne by businesses alone. But as government ministers will know, most employment 'rights' are ultimately paid for by workers in the form of lower pay or fewer job opportunities. Many employment rules have no beneficial effects on individual workers but simply add to costs. So while government may claim to believe that private enterprise will drive our economic recovery, it is simultaneously acquiescing in restrictions that hold it back.
The new policy paper has some redeeming features. Retaining EU law to provide legal certainty when we left the bloc was justified at the time, but government is right that we need to now systematically review and streamline how it is repealed. Yet the new, homegrown regulations it champions risk cancelling out any benefits from diverging from EU rules. A new regime for digital markets, for instance, is not pro-competition simply because the Digital Markets Unit is being set up on UK soil. In fact, the unit poses significant risks to competition, innovation and entrepreneurship.
For all the talk of freedom, this new paper extols the sorts of burdensome rules Brexit promised to slash. Leaving the EU was never going to automatically make us a land of milk and honey. Nor will it be until government slowly and steadily works through the regulations and decides which should be thrown on the scrap heap.