Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Week-in-Review: A reckoning for the Brexit ‘bonfire’, and for Kemi Badenoch

During the first Conservative leadership election of 2022, as candidates vied for space in the post-Boris political landscape, one ill-fated contender released a campaign video set in the mythical “Brexit Delivery Department”. As the video plays and the door to the “department” is unlocked, folders upon folders of documents labelled “EU Red Tape”, “EU Legislation” and “EU Bureaucracy” are lumbered onto a table. A faceless civil servant huffs, hands-on-hips. He’s gonna need a bigger shredder. Fade to black. 

In his first 100 days as prime minister, Rishi Sunak will review or repeal post-Brexit EU laws”, we are informed in block capitals: “All 2,400 of them”. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” blasts as streams of shredded paper fill the frame. 

Brexit has never been a political project much concerned with subtlety. From the infamous red bus which promised £350 million a week for the NHS, to the “get Brexit done” digger Johnson drove through a plushy wall in 2019; the heavy-handed metaphor may be the Brexit argument at its purest. 

But unfortunately for the project’s proponents, glib stunts and good vibes have not thus far translated into a recipe for consistent government. And the latest example of this comes by way of the climbdown over the government’s “bonfire” of EU legislation — once trailed so energetically by the Ready for Rishi team. 

The prime minister, therefore, who spent Wednesday afternoon at prime minister’s questions blasting Keir Starmer as “Mr flip-flop”, was engaged in a tricky U-turn of his own.

The minister entrusted with landing the climbdown was Kemi Badenoch, the recently-appointed business and trade secretary. On Wednesday evening, Badenoch issued a written ministerial statement announcing the government will only be reviewing or repealing 600 laws by the end of the year — not the 2,400 Sunak promised in his leadership campaign. 

She then took to the pages of the Telegraph, still yet to appear before MPs, to argue that “getting rid of EU law in the UK should be about more than a race to a deadline”, adding that post-Brexit legislative tinkering “should be about making sure our laws work for the people who use them”. 

The thinking is thus: in abandoning the so-called “sunset clause”, ministers and officials are now free to focus on the laws they want to change rather than scrambling to hit an arbitrary target. It is an opinion long-voiced by critics, who contended that the bill was bound to leave dangerous gaps in the statute book on areas including the protection of the environment and workers’ rights.

But this is only part of the story. Hauled to the House of Commons on Thursday to answer an urgent question from veteran eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash, Badenoch insisted she was pursuing a “pragmatic middle-ground” on the bill — the realities of governance, the subtext read, was lost on her over-zealous detractors. 

Undeterred and unapologetic, Badenoch later told TalkTV: “You campaign in poetry, but govern in prose”. It certainly explains Sunak’s shift in approach since his shredder-centric summer antics.

It also underlines a core theme of Sunakian rule thus far: that is the PM’s desire to bed-in the Brexit he supported on practical, seemingly less ideological terms. He may vaunt his Leave credentials at every opportunity, but there is no room for purity of principle in his mission to make Brexit as banal as possible. 

However, this episode has not just been seen as a reckoning for the much-foretold Brexit “bonfire” — but also for Badenoch as the minister entrusted with breaking the bad news to her colleagues. In this way, one not-so-subtle subplot to Thursday’s events was Badenoch’s own not-so-carefully-concealed leadership ambitions. 

The good, the Badenoch and the ERG

It is often said that Badenoch has a good chance of becoming the next Conservative leader. She figures consistently high in the ConservativeHome ranking of cabinet ministers — an important arbiter of grassroots feeling; and she was a surprise strong-performer among MPs during the summer leadership contest, amassing the support of 59 colleagues before dropping out in the fourth round of voting. She even attracted the support of Michael Gove — a cabinet survivor who is perennially fearful for his party’s future.

One wonders, therefore, how much damage the recent U-turn may have done to Badenoch’s leadership prospects. 

“The advantage of a sunset is that it provides a sense of urgency. Now there isn’t one, is there?”, boomed Desmond Swayne, a veteran Eurosceptic and Badenoch-backer during the 2022 leadership race. 

ERG co-chair Mark Francois felt especially aggrieved. He lamented the government’s “massive climbdown on its own bill despite having such strong support from its own back benches”. “Secretary of state, what on earth are you playing at?”, he thundered.

But such bombast notwithstanding — what may be good news for Badenoch is that many other MPs are not sure who is really at fault here. Indeed, although architect of the legislation Jacob Rees-Mogg accused the prime minister of “shredding his promises” (wink-wink) on Thursday, he took aim equally at the so-called Whitehall “blob” for scuppering his bill’s progress. The former Brexit opportunities minister even admitted he could not decide whether the U-turn was the result of “civil service idleness or a lack of ministerial drive”. 

Moreover, Rees-Mogg later detailed on his GB News show that Badenoch is “one of the most dynamic ministers in the government” and warned that if she could not deliver on the bill’s promise it suggested deep intransigence from the civil service.

In his attacks on the “blob” Rees-Mogg was backed by Dominic Raab, who claimed that the ministry of justice under his leadership had identified a huge number of laws to repeal or altered. He insisted the government should publish a “department-by-department analysis” of laws set to be scrapped. 

Equally, many in the chamber on Thursday were happy with Badenoch’s decision — which she repeatedly insisted was her own. David Davis, who once resigned as Brexit secretary in protest at Theresa May’s plans for a softer Brexit, said the initial sunset clause was “unwise” and risked handing power from Brussels to civil servants.

Of course, it is no secret that the ERG’s influence is much-diminished under Rishi Sunak’s premiership. Following the prime minister’s victory over the Windsor Framework deal for Northern Ireland in March, when just 22 of his backbenchers ended up voting against the agreement with Brussels despite warnings of a much larger rebellion, the group’s purpose and power have been under question. Its former chair in Steve Baker is currently a loyal government minister at the NI office; and, even before the framework fiasco, the group could not collectively endorse a candidate in the October 2022 leadership election. 

It is also worth pointing out that Badenoch’s support base is not exclusively associated with the Sunaksceptic right. After dropping out in the fourth round of MP voting in the summer, Badenoch’s backers split pretty evenly between Liz Truss and the now-prime minister. She also voted for Theresa May’s Brexit deal on all three occasions, and Gove’s consummate patronage underlines she may be more politically complicated than her opponents assume. 

Braverman vs. Badenoch?

So in a week where Penny Mordaunt was feted as having boosted her leadership potential because she held a sword for a long time, one wonders how seriously we should take claims that Badenoch’s race is run. 

Still, this week was a clear reality-based reckoning for the Brexit “bonfire”, and Badenoch was undoubtedly caught in the crossfire.

In all, Badenoch’s role here probably underlines that it is Suella Braverman, the home secretary, who is the champion of the ERG in government and likely in a future leadership election.

But, ultimately, with the institutional elements of Conservative euroscepticism splitting and under siege, Badenoch’s seizure of the “pragmatic” ground may actually bode well for her future leadership prospects — certainly among largely Sunak-backing MPs.