Jill Rutter / Mar 2023
The EU took two bets when Rishi Sunak took over from Liz Truss as prime minister in October 2022.
First, that he was, in Margaret Thatcher’s phrase about Mikhail Gorbachev decades earlier, someone they “could do business with” in contrast to his predecessors. That that bet had paid off was shown when Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen announced their agreement in Windsor in an atmosphere that seemed left over from the weddings that are sometimes held there (then-Prince Charles married his long-standing lover Camilla Parker Bowles there in 2005).
The second – much riskier – bet was that Sunak could sell the deal to his unruly party and survive in power after any compromise. The vote on 22nd March showed that he could. Whereas Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement had plunged to a record defeat in Parliament after days of debate , Sunak’s vote on the statutory instrument to introduce the Stormont Brake was passed by a majority of 486 with 22 Conservatives voting against, joined by the Democratic Unionists. There were a number of genuine abstentions as well.
The delicious irony was, of course, that those voting against the Brake were voting in favour of the automatic application of EU rule changes to Northern Ireland, with no say for Northern Irish MLAs or the UK government, as conceded by Boris Johnson in his initial Protocol. (For those who want to relive the parliamentary nightmare of Brexit, academics Meg Russell and Lisa James published their definitive account of the Parliamentary Battle over Brexit on the day of the framework vote. )
So the scene is set for the Windsor framework to be implemented. Most MPs, a majority in Northern Ireland and probably most voters across the UK, are probably breathing a sigh of relief that – more than three years after Boris Johnson won an election with the promise to “get Brexit done” – we may finally have a settled exit deal. While those who wanted the purest form of Brexit still want more, all those who just wanted politics to move beyond Brexit will be relieved.
But there is unfinished business. Devolved government has yet to be restored in Northern Ireland. We do not yet have the DUP’s final verdict on the framework, and they resented being bounced by the vote. It is clear that the framework fails their seven tests. But they, like the European Research Group, ultimately only have one test – that no EU law applies in Northern Ireland. They still point to the now dead Northern Ireland Protocol Bill as the way to achieve that, without acknowledging that that provides no long run solution. The best Sunak can probably hope for is that some time, perhaps after the local elections in May, the DUP grudgingly come into government, without ever accepting the Framework. That was how they reconciled joining the Executive after rejecting the Good Friday Agreement. Once that happens, he can close his Northern Ireland Brexit file.
And much as though Parliament may hope it has seen the back of Brexit, next month it will have to get back to grips with the retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill - the legislation dreamed up by David Frost, nurtured by Jacob Rees Mogg and now taken forward by the Sunak government. Many hoped Sunak’s next step after the Windsor Framework would be to drop this legislation, designed to kick a recalcitrant Whitehall into action and remove the incubus of “retained EU law” and its “supremacy” from our sovereign statute book, but that seems to have misread the prime minister who is, after all, an original Brexit supporter. After days of debate at Committee stage in the Lords, it faces amendment after Easter as it completes its Lords stages. There are many aspects – constitutional, administrative as well as policy – that the Lords took issue with. But the stage is set for a battle in so-called ping pong as the bill bounces between Commons and Lords. Ultimately though the bill will go through.
And then the real work of overhauling the mass of 4000 or so pieces of secondary legislation inherited from the EU will begin – potentially to a rapid timetable. The EU will watch the substance of changes – some deliberate and others perhaps accidental - closely in case any UK moves trigger level playing field concerns.
But in another part of government a more realistic approach to post-Brexit regulation is emerging. Last autumn, the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt outlined five growth industries – digital technology, life sciences, green industries, financial services and advanced manufacturing – where regulatory reform would be prioritised in 2023. This month’s Budget hinted at some of the early potential fruits of this approach.
In his Budget, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced proposals for a new lighter touch to digital technologies and what he called a “different model” for medicines regulation in the UK – one which “which will allow rapid, often near automatic sign-off for medicines and technologies already approved by trusted regulators in other parts of the world such as the United States, Europe or Japan. At the same time from next year they will set up a swift new approval process for the most cutting-edge medicines and devices to ensure the UK becomes a global centre for their development.”
That approach seems to show a government willing to grapple with the reality of finding a regulatory niche for comparative advantage, , in a market dominated by big regulatory hegemons. It signals an acceptance that the UK does not have the resources or attraction to compete with those big players, a willingness to free ride on their decisions while focusing UK efforts on building an alternative complementary offer.
Perhaps it is that realisation of how the UK can position itself in a post-Brexit world that is the real evidence that Brexit is finally getting done.