While the Cabinet mulls what kind of eventual trade relationship it wants with the EU, there are a number of obvious rows coming down the track as part of the next stage of Brexit. One, inevitably, is going to focus on the future of the Social Chapter – the EU’s labour market regulations.
We saw a preview of this fight over the weekend. The Sun on Sunday reported that there is “big support…in Cabinet” for abolishing the rules that limit how much overtime a worker chooses to take on, potentially freeing people up to earn more. At the same time, the TUC accused ministers of a “plot” to steal workers’ rights to paid holidays.
Part of the issue stems from the fact that the set of rules in question relate to both restrictions and rights – all bundled together under the same headings. Even more complex than that, different people see the same rules in completely conflicting ways. Just like with Sunday Trading laws, for example, what one person resents as an undue limit on their freedom to work, someone else might well see as a protection against being made to work too much.
That all sets the scene for what is sure to be a furious row over commitments made by Vote Leave, to win the referendum, and then by Theresa May, to calm some of the wilder rhetoric from opponents of Brexit: namely that workers’ rights will be protected after the UK leaves the EU. That’s a clear enough pledge on many issues – like parental leave, or holidays, for example – but what does it mean on things like working time rules, where what some call rights others see as an infringement of their rights?
As with any other controversy, this will be thrashed out in Cabinet, then in public, then in Parliament. What makes it all the more interesting will be the somewhat strange alliances this particular topic might create.
While the Working Time Directive itself was eventually forced through under a bogus health and safety justification, it was originally planned as part of the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty. The Social Chapter did not apply to Britain from 1993 onwards (hence the EU’s need to smuggle in this particular directive through another route), because John Major’s government negotiated an opt-out. That only changed when Blair abandoned the opt-out that Major had won. Cameron pledged to pull out of the Social Chapter again when leader of the Opposition, and wanted to renegotiate opt-outs when in office.
That’s a bit of a challenge for some of the pro-EU voices who will no doubt seek to make this the focus of another skirmish. It’s a bit hard for those who supported Major or Cameron’s positions at the time, or who opposed Blair decision to abandon those opt-outs, to now act as though these EU rules are sacrosanct and must not be controlled and indeed varied from by the UK Parliament.
At the same time, there’s a tricky bit of footwork required for some of those who voiced apparently unequivocal promises on workforce regulation during the referendum who might now wish to draw distinction between what they believe to be protections and what they see as unnecessary restrictions on workers’ freedoms. In that sense, both sides risk being bound by the ghosts of their own past opinions.