A cabinet row has broken out over Jacob Rees-Mogg’s plans to ax all remaining EU laws in under four years, given concerns about the feasibility of combing through at least 2,000 pieces of legislation while the civil service faces severe cutbacks.
The Brexit opportunities minister is pushing for the laws carried over after Brexit to expire by a “cliff-edge” deadline of 23 June 2026, marking 10 years since the EU referendum.
However, the Guardian has learned that at least two cabinet ministers have railed against the proposal, while officials have said the goal is “literally impossible” – particularly as Rees-Mogg is also spearheading the cull of the civil service.
In a letter to the North Somerset MP, George Eustice said that “messing around” with some rules would mean an additional cost to businesses and be a waste of officials’ time, while senior Whitehall sources voiced fears of a mass deregulation drive by the back door.
The pushback came amid wrangling within government about how to better promote the “benefits” of Britain’s independence. Brussels is set to launch legal action against the UK’s bid to unilaterally override the Northern Ireland protocol on Wednesday.
Rees-Mogg plans to publish a “Brexit freedoms” bill this summer. In a letter to cabinet colleagues seen by the Guardian, he proposed 23 June 2026 as the date when a “sunset clause” should be activated, causing all “retained EU law” to fall off the UK’s statute book. Alternative dates “significant in the Brexit calendar” are also being considered, such as 31 January 2030, which would mark a decade since Britain left the EU.
After a Whitehall review found there were 2,194 retained EU laws still in existence across 180 unique policy areas, Rees-Mogg said an “impetus for change” was needed “to drive momentum for a regulatory reform process that would remove unnecessary burdens”.
Ministers were ordered to assess the laws affecting their departments and told that some with higher levels would “need to allocate significant resources” – but that no extra money would be provided.
Given existing plans to ax 91,000 civil servants, Rees-Mogg said ensuring the deadline is met “will demand careful prioritisation of policy objectives across government”.
A team is to be set up in the Cabinet Office to help triage those laws that are “a high priority” for keeping, Rees-Mogg added, with a dashboard monitoring their progress and overseen by a new Brexit opportunities star chamber, comprising ministers and policy officials.
Multiple laws that ministers may want to retain could be contained within a single form of secondary legislation known as a statutory instrument (SI), Rees-Mogg assured them, but he added: “We cannot predict how complex or straightforward the SIs will be. ”
An annex to the letter to the cabinet also admitted there was a risk of “increases in litigation” and that while the government would commit publicly to not breaking any international legal obligations, Rees-Mogg was “considering” whether to make this more explicit in the text of the bill.
In a sign of the number of laws that could be dropped or watered down, Rees-Mogg said the drive would “be deregulatory in ambition, but we intend to allow a reasonably wide interpretation of what is regulatory that is not limited to reducing the cost to business” and added: “Brexit is an opportunity to create our own rulebook.”
He added that because tax was a “particularly complex” area of retained EU law, it would be addressed in a “bespoke” bill sponsored by the Treasury.
Cabinet ministers were given less than two weeks to respond, with some missing the deadline – taken as a sign of the level of unhappiness.
In his letter, Eustice, the environment secretary, said such an approach “could mean that time is wasted on minor issues when I have been trying to focus my officials’ time on the flagship bodies of EU law that have the greatest impact” – such as the habitats regulations and nitrates directive.
Eustice said he feared the “pressure of an early sunset cliff edge would mean that officials would be spending too much time” looking at laws of lesser importance, adding: “Doing all of them at once would be misplaced energy.”
He also said that “messing around” with the minutiae of some retained EU laws, such as product composition or labelling, “costs businesses money and is unlikely to make much difference”.
Another member of the cabinet admitted there was disquiet in Boris Johnson’s top team about the issue. “This is not a debate that we are seeking to have in public,” the minister said.
Senior Whitehall sources said it would be “literally impossible” for departments to wade through hundreds of retained EU laws and come up with plans to retain, amend or drop them with no extra resources.
They pointed out that a substantial number of the laws adopted by the EU were lobbied for by the UK government when Britain was still a member, or adopted as a result of obligations under international organisations.
A government insider suggested Rees-Mogg’s plan might not be adopted due to staunch opposition, adding that many hours of parliamentary time would have to be set aside for adopting or amending retained EU law at the expense of passing other key bills before the next general election .
Catherine Barnard, a professor of EU law at Cambridge University and deputy director of the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank, said: “A sunset clause is an effective but crude mechanism for bringing to an end whole swaths of retained EU law, much of which still serves a valuable function. Replacing worthwhile EU rules with a domestic variation will take significant civil servant and parliamentary time when the country has other pressing priorities.”
A spokesperson for Eustice said they would not comment on the leaked letter. The Cabinet Office said the Brexit opportunities bill would “make it easier to amend or repeal outdated EU law which does not suit the UK, ending the ‘special status’ that EU law continues to enjoy in our legal framework and saving businesses at least £1bn in burdensome EU red tape”.