Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent appearance before the European Scrutiny Committee saw the minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency  set out his Brexit plans, priorities and push-backs. Here are the five takeaways from the session.
Rees -Mogg’s unit – physically in the Treasury, “metaphysically” in the Cabinet Office – now consists of 31 opportunity hunters. The long search for a director for the unit was over – Mr Chris Carr had started the day before, moving over from the deregulation part of the Business department (suggesting the attempt to attract an outsider had failed). Rees-Mogg was quick to point up that his empire was much smaller than that of the now departed Lord Frost, with foreign secretary Liz Truss and her Europe (and lots else beside) minister Chris Heaton-Harris now leading on the NI protocol and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
One of the most striking comments Rees-Mogg made was in response to a question on where he saw opportunities for divergence: “I am afraid I think that we must get away from this idea of divergence. I do not care what the EU does anymore, any more than I care what the United States or Singapore do.” The question was not what the EU was doing or not – but what was right for the UK.
As we have pointed out before, as long as the UK stays signed up to the Northern Ireland protocol then any divergence in Great Britain from rules that will apply in Northern Ireland simply deepens the Irish Sea border the government negotiated. And, second, UK exporters are still potentially very interested in how the EU regulates, given that for many it is their biggest export market. Keeping track of what the EU is doing – and then deciding on the merits of staying aligned or not – should be a core part of Rees-Mogg’s unit’s role , as should working with the UK Mission to the EU in Brussels to see whether the government should be lobbying with other like-minded countries to head off EU regulation that could be antithetical to UK interests.
But then, a few moments later, Rees-Mogg seemed to back track from the lure of regulatory autarky: “We want to be thinking about how India regulates its pharmaceuticals market, one of the best and most successful pharmaceutical markets in the world.” He is right that we want to learn from regulatory best practice, but an “anywhere-but-the-EU” approach fails to take proper account of business and practical realities.
Rees-Mogg is intending to spend a lot of time legislating in the next session. The Retained EU Law Bill – aka the Brexit freedom bill – will contain the long-promised fast track mechanism to amend EU law we no longer like as well as “speeding up the process” of dethroning retained EU law from its supremacy over UK law. There will be battles ahead over whether the mere fact that EU law was implemented via secondary legislation justifies a lack of scrutiny when the government changes it: Rees-Mogg made clear that there were internal battles going on about how extensive the bill would be – he argued for as wide-ranging bill as possible, but also acknowledged that it was not yet drafted. He is also bringing forward legislation on procurement to make the most of the Brexit opportunity to simplify procurement processes.
Although he did not mention the rumoured legislation to supersede the Northern Ireland Protocol, Rees-Mogg made clear that he regarded the protocol as highly unsatisfactory. His view that it was only agreed on the basis it would be reformed was widely picked up. But he went on to say: “There comes a point at which you say, ‘You have not reformed it and therefore we are reforming it ourselves’. The United Kingdom is much more important than any agreement that we have with any foreign power.”
Many businesses would argue that the immediate consequences of Brexit had been to put upward pressure on prices – whether from labour shortages, or from new costs of complying with customs procedures or duplicating regulatory approvals. But Rees-Mogg was bullish in asserting the contrary: “Are those supply side reforms going to come from reforming and removing EU regulation? Yes. That is our real opportunity. It is, in a more jargony way, non-fiscal interventions to make the economy more efficient and lower cost."
The problem for Rees-Mogg is that the examples he gave (and those set out in the Benefits of Brexit white paper  ) are small set alongside the costs – and there is little chance of bigger reforms – to workers’ rights or environmental protections which might conceivably reduce costs passing Parliament. That looks like a cost of living cul de sac.
The session started with some banter about how the committee was now the key accountability mechanism for Rees-Mogg to Parliament. But while he did face some pressure over the thinness of the benefits of Brexit white paper and urgings to go further and faster, none of the five Labour committee members, nor the official SNP member, showed up (former SNP MP, Margaret Ferrier, did). Scrutiny by fan club does not work.