Jacob Rees-Mogg this week unveiled something that has variously been mocked as either a 'vanity project' or the Johnson administration's equivalent of the Major government's Cones Hotline. The Cones Hotline was a policy designed to tackle the great social evil of traffic cones loitering without intent – and became emblematic of that government's tiredness and lack of proper ideas.
The Brexit Opportunities Minister has come up with a 'retained EU law dashboard', which he told MPs yesterday was 'of both political - and in my view - historic constitutional importance'. The dashboard allows the public to see which out of more than 2,400 pieces of EU legislation have been kept and which have been abolished, and they can count down the number that are disappearing from the statute book. It's hardly going to be a countdown along the lines of New Year's Eve or people clicking refresh for a Glastonbury ticket. But it is also wrong to dismiss this as a pointless vanity project. In reality, it's part of something that is very important - though not for the reasons Rees-Mogg offered.
This dashboard comes ahead of the Brexit Freedoms Bill, which among other things promises to make it easier for the government to dispose of these inconvenient pieces of EU law. Rees-Mogg alluded to that yesterday, telling the Commons that this legislation would prevent MPs from having to spend years treating every minor regulation as though it were an Act of Parliament.
“Undoing this vandalism to our constitutional order policy area by policy area would dominate the legislative agenda for Parliaments to come, which would affect the Government’s ability to deliver more fundamental domestic reforms and the opportunity for the UK to reap the benefits of Brexit. The 'Brexit Freedoms' Bill will create a targeted power to allow retained EU law to be amended in a more sustainable way, and will go with the grain of the British constitution. This will help us to deliver the UK’s regulatory, economic and legal priorities.
Sounds fair enough, doesn't it? Except it just so happens that a minister's definition of what is important enough for Parliament to scrutinise can often be quite different from that of the Commons itself. It tends to include laws that are politically difficult, rather than just extremely niche. Give any minister an opportunity to sneak something past MPs without the chance for them to vote on it and of course they'll take it. And that is one of the risks in this Brexit Freedoms Bill. Just because scrutiny is a bit of a pain for the government, doesn't it mean it shouldn't happen. So it shouldn't just be members of the public eagerly watching this dashboard for signs they are taking back control. It should also be MPs - for signs that the executive, not Parliament, has snatched that control away.