‘Operation Bleach’ to scrub EU from the statute book

Christopher Hope
·4-min read
Boris Johnson - Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament
Boris Johnson - Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament

Boris Johnson has secretly ordered civil servants to strip references to the European Union from tens of thousands of laws to stop Labour reversing Brexit after the next general election in a plan known by some in Whitehall as “Operation Bleach”.

Officials have been tasked with leafing through regulations and statutory instruments (SIs) covering the UK's 40 year membership of the EU so that Brexit is cemented in UK law and cannot be easily unwound by a future government.

The news comes just days after the European Research Group of Conservative MPs, in its verdict on the UK-EU post Brexit trade deal, warned that ministers would have to be "robust" in ensuring that Britain is not gradually reassimilated back into the influence of Brussels by future administrations.

Last week, former Labour shadow minister Rosie Duffield said the majority of Labour MPs were “desperate to rejoin” the EU “at heart”, adding that Labour MPs voted for Boris Johnson’s deal “with a heavy heart” and “haven’t given up” on EU membership.

In a move to ensure that Brexit cannot be unwound, the Prime Minister has tasked a team of 20 civil servants with the project which has been branded "Operation Bleach" by some insiders.

The officials are, according to a source, “looking at how we can cleanse our legislative framework of references to EU law, any kind of impact of EU law. It is going to be a mammoth task because there are thousands of pieces of legislation - statutory instruments, regulations; that sort of thing.”

Ministers said they were in a race against time to ensure that the changes were made before the next general election, expected in 2024, when a Labour government could try to re-forge links between London and Brussels.

One minister said: “This is the Government to do it - if a future Labour government won't.”

Another minister added: "The fear that people have was not that we would have another referendum but there would be a slow creep, making references to court rulings.

"People have wanted it so that if there were any change of view by future governments, at the very least it can't go unnoticed."

Ministers also want to ensure that any wording or nomenclature in laws will not lead judges who are reading it to refer back to European Court of Justice rulings which could lead to EU case law being enforced in the UK by the back door.

The work had started with the EU withdrawal treaty, which carefully “avoids the usage of EU terminology, to use more international law terms”.

One example was how the treaty so,ught to replace EU-friendly terms like "State Aid" with "subsidy system" which is more commonly used at the World Trade Organisation.

The Cabinet Office is understood to have been coordinating the work that has been largely carried out by the individual departments.

A second minister said: "The number of SIs and changes are a lot. Anything of note will have to go through the Commons at some point. There is still quite a number of SIs to go through. But all the major stuff is done."

The minister added: "There is quite a bit of work that has gone on. There may be some tidying up exercises. The exercise has been done, but perhaps not all of the changes have been made."

HM Treasury tried to replace EU terms with UK ones before the last election in a vote in the House of Commons, but the move was defeated by Tory rebels and Labour.

Mark Francois, Chairman of the ERG said: “In 2016, the Eurosceptic movement made a fundamental mistake, when we relaxed after the Referendum, thinking we had won.

“In contrast, the ardent Remainers redoubled their efforts and, after much Parliamentary chicanery, very nearly overturned the result.

“We must never repeat our gross error and always remain vigilant against any attempt to rejoin, especially from a Labour Party, led by a Remainer at heart.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "We have taken back full control of our laws and have put in place the critical legislation ahead of 31st December 2020 to support transition and ensure a functioning statute book.

"The UK can now regulate in more innovative and effective ways which suit the UK economy and UK businesses without being bound by EU rules."