Brexit may not have the immediacy of the cost of living crisis, but the choices facing Boris Johnson’s successor will have important consequences for their premiership and the UK, writes Jill Rutter
Boris Johnson fought and won the 2019 election on the promise he would “Get Brexit Done”. A month later Parliament signed off the Withdrawal Agreement and on 31 January 2020 the UK’s EU membership was consigned to history. A year later, Johnson led the triumphal signing of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement as a basis for the UK’s new long-term relationship with the EU. Yet as both contenders for the Conservative leadership know, the UK’s new relationship with the EU is neither harmonious nor stable. Meanwhile there is increasing evidence that many firms and individuals are still struggling with the consequences of the UK’s exit from the EU. Brexit is still very much a work in progress, and Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will face some complicated decisions.
Both candidates are committed to securing the passage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which gives the UK government powers unilaterally to rewrite huge swathes of the protocol. Indeed, Liz Truss has said she regards the bill as one of her major achievements in government. But the bill is not yet law and the House of Lords is shaping up for a fight. A report by its Delegated Powers Committee, published in recess, was described by former government chief lawyer Sir Jonathan Jones as an evisceration of the powers that the government was proposing to give itself.  The committee said: “The Bill represents as stark a transfer of power from Parliament to the Executive as we have seen throughout the Brexit process. The Bill is unprecedented in its cavalier treatment of Parliament, the EU and the Government’s international obligations.” The new prime minister will have a fight on their hands.
Despite the almost non-stop merry go round of hustings, neither candidate has been asked how they see the NI protocol issue being resolved (nor given any indication of how they propose to induce the DUP to go back into government in Northern Ireland). Both appear to have bought into the notion that belligerence not only wins leadership votes but also is the only way to make the EU move. Both claim to prefer a negotiated settlement, but neither has shown any idea how to get there.
Meanwhile the UK and the EU may well see each other in court. The introduction of the bill persuaded the EU to reinvigorate paused infringement proceedings against the UK – and start new ones – for its failure to implement the Protocol. The UK response has been delayed until next month, but Liz Truss has already initiated the first stage of the dispute process under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement over the EU’s refusal to ratify UK participation in some EU programmes like the big science programme Horizon Europe – even though the TCA allowed that option. Frustrating researchers in the EU as well as in the UK, the EU’s Horizon decision illustrates the dire state into which relations have already fallen, but there is still scope for further deterioration.
Ongoing Brexit uncertainty and the risk of a trade war casts a continuing shadow over the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for overseas investment. Meanwhile neither candidate has any proposal to deal with Brexit red tape and both have denied that the queues facing passengers at Dover in the summer had anything to do with Brexit.
The preponderance of economic problems are not Brexit caused – but Brexit has made thema bit less tractable. It has become harder and more costly to do business with the EU and less easy to fill mounting vacancies with labour recruited simply through free movement. Meanwhile business and leisure travel has become noticeably harder.
But instead of accepting or addressing any of these problems, both candidates have proposed speeding up the delivery of “Brexit opportunities” by removing Retained EU law (REUL) from the statute book. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 2026 timetable has been replaced with a deadline of 2023 (Truss) or a 100-day review of all Retained EU law (Sunak). Either of these is a recipe for really bad law-making and a period of uncertainty over the status of regulations. With both candidates also seemingly keen to enable more ministerial intervention in regulatory decisions, there are risks that UK regulatory autonomy could, rather than become a magnet for business, make the UK a much more uncertain and less attractive destination.
Judicial review proceedings have been brought against the government by its watchdog on citizens’ rights over the Home Office handling of EU citizens with pre-settled status under the EU settlement scheme. The case will be heard in November. But the Home Office’s hard line, that failure to upgrade to settled status in time means a citizen becomes an illegal immigrant, will lead to misery and difficult cases. It will not hold. At a time when the UK needs to hang on to workers, it also makes no sense. A new PM should make their new home secretary reconsider and avoid an entirely self-inflicted nightmare to come.
Boris Johnson first established a Brexit team in the Cabinet Office both to manage the relationship with the EU and to deliver Brexit opportunities. When Lord Frost quit, that team was split: relationship management went to the FCDO and opportunities stayed in the Cabinet Office. Truss appears to favour leaving responsibility for the relationship in the FCDO, but beyond that neither candidate has suggested how and where Brexit will sit within government.
It is a decision that neither will be able to duck. The outgoing “Got Brexit Done” prime minister has bequeathed his successor a huge Brexit “to do” list.