Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has previously said it would take half a century to feel the full benefit of Brexit, has been delegated by Boris Johnson to prove some advantages now, as part of a mini-reshuffle of his government.
Rees-Mogg, the new “Brexit opportunities minister”, was told by the prime minister to draw up an action plan with “1,000 regulations we want to get rid of”, according to government officials.
The leading Brexiter was asked to demonstrate the claim that he and Johnson made during the 2016 referendum that leaving the EU would improve daily life and help business.
Johnson’s allies said deregulation was “at the heart of a new mission of delivery for this government”, but many business leaders are nervous that EU markets could close to them if Britain deviates too far from existing rules.
Chris Southworth, UK head of the International Chamber of Commerce, said: “We do not want a wild bonfire of regulations – that would set the country back. Consumers, businesses and civil society all want high standards and that means smart regulation. ”
Johnson has admitted that deregulation has been too slow; previous Brexit-related “red tape blitzes” have been criticized for coming up with symbolic changes, such as restoring the crown symbol on pint glasses.
The redeployment of Rees-Mogg, shuffled sideways from his role as Leader of the House of Commons, was part of a wider attempt by Johnson to re-energize his ailing administration. One Tory MP critical of Johnson described it as “moving the deckchairs on the Titanic”.
In a sign of Johnson’s weakness, those blamed by Tory MPs in recent weeks for the chaos gripping the party were moved sideways, rather than being sacked. The new line-up puts leading Brexiters in main positions.
Rees-Mogg was criticized by Tory MPs for coming up with a botched plan last year to save Owen Paterson, a former minister embroiled in a sleaze scandal, that collapsed into chaos within 24 hours.
The new Brexit opportunities minister said he would turbo-charge the deregulation agenda, telling Johnson: “I’m ready to go to work, if you could just tell me where my office is.”
Johnson also cleared out the whips office, the team who maintain party discipline, by installing pro-Brexit Chris Heaton-Harris, a former MEP and part-time football referee, as the new chief whip.
Heaton-Harris has been told to restore order in a mutinous parliamentary party; he has been part of the “shadow whipping operation” seeking to stave off a Tory leadership threat to Johnson.
“My approach is ‘death by a thousand kindnesses’,” Heaton-Harris explained to Johnson, according to government officials. He said he would restore discipline with an approach based on “carrot, not stick”.
Mark Spencer, who had been chief whip, replaces Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House of Commons, but his appointment was slammed by Labor as “inappropriate”.
Downing Street has ordered a Cabinet Office inquiry into claims from former Minister Nusrat Ghani that a Conservative party whip informed her that her “Muslimness was raised as an issue” by Number 10 as one reason for her being fired from government. Spencer has identified himself as the whip she spoke to in March 2020 but described her comments as “completely false” and “defamatory”.
Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow Commons leader, said: “It is completely inappropriate for the prime minister to appoint as leader of the House a man who faces an ongoing investigation into grotesque racism.”
Another female Tory MP said few women featured in the shake-up: “It’s a dog’s breakfast of a reshuffle. It’s about jobs for the boys and putting Boris henchmen who aren’t naturally well-loved in the party into different roles. ”
A Conservative MP who has called for Johnson to quit said: “Ultimately the position of the administration is fatal. Having lots of people around Johnson to help prop him up is only delaying the inevitable. ”
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