When Conservative governments set about curtailing employment and trade union rights the route map for massaging public reaction follows tried and tested procedures.

Headline-grabbing objectives are floated in briefings to well-informed journalists, and then, amid a flurry of media interest, ministers row back from worst-case scenarios insisting that high standards in the UK will not be eroded.

Leaked reports in early January of an immediate post-Brexit review of the 48-hour limit on the working week were the precursor to the latest example of a well-honed routine.

The bluster behind Boris Johnson’s soothing words spoke volumes: his government was not about to ‘send children up chimneys’.

This is the signal to columnists and commentators on Conservative-supporting newspapers to pile in, to urge the Prime Minister to go even further and to ignore ‘the howls of rage from the Labour Party, trade unions and the usual collection of centre-Left establishment think-tanks’.

‘Reforming labour laws is vital to shake off inertia of the EU’ declared business and financial columnist Matthew Lynn who argued there had never been a ‘better moment to reform employment laws’. (Daily Telegraph, 16.1.2021)

Freeing Britain from Brussels’ ‘stranglehold’ has long been the objective of the Mail on Sunday. Its political editor, Glen Owen, urged the Prime Minister to push ahead with regulatory reform: ‘Let’s make Britain the Singapore of Europe’. (17.1.2021)

Brexit-supporting newspapers had greeted with approval the Financial Times’ exclusive – ‘UK workers’ rights at risk in plans to rip up EU Labour market rules’ (14.1.2021) – and their enthusiastic commentary gave added impetus to the Prime Minister’s plea to business leaders to come up with ideas for easing regulations to support economic growth.

Initially Downing Street refused to confirm or deny that the newly appointed business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng had been asked to start a review of the EU working time directive, scrapping the maximum 48-hour week and a raft of changes including removal of the requirement to log the daily reporting of working hours and the inclusion of bonuses and overtime in calculating holiday pay.

‘Government sources’ told a different story: a consultation on employment rights was signed off by Kwarteng’s predecessor, Alok Sharma, and had already been circulated to some select business leaders.

Ed Miliband, shadow business secretary, seized on the reports to warn that the review of employment rights was the start of the ‘race to the bottom’ which ministers had long dreamed of for post-Brexit Britain.

‘It’s starting – the bonfire of workers’ rights’ declared the headline over a comment column in The Guardian (16.1.2021) in which Miliband pointed to Kwarteng’s long-standing belief that the UK’s labour market was too highly regulated.

Kwarteng was among the free-market campaigners who wrote a 2012 manifesto, Britannia Unchained, that declared that the British were ‘among the worst idlers in the world’ and he was co-author of a pamphlet proposing to exempt start-up firms from employment legislation.

When MPs had a chance to confront the business secretary at a hearing of Commons business select committee (19.1.2021), Kwarteng confirmed publicly that his department had started a post-Brexit review of UK employment laws, but the government did not want to ‘whittle down’ labour market standards.  

‘We are absolutely looking at safeguarding employment rights. I know there have been stories in the newspapers that there is going to be some sort of bonfire of rights. This could not be further from the truth.

“We wanted to look at the whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we wanted to keep.  We are absolutely committed to having a really high standard for workers in high employment and a high wage economy.”

Together with the employment rights review, there will be a far-reaching push under a newly established better regulation committee, to be chaired by the chancellor Rishi Sunak, to focus on ways to cut EU red tape for businesses.

Sunak’s brief is to deliver ‘a low-tax, low-regulation regime’ now that the UK has the opportunity to do things differently. Like Kwarteng, Sunak insisted that this was not a race to the bottom.

‘This isn’t about lowering standards, but about raising our eyes to look to the future – making the most of new sectors, new thinking and new ways of working.’

Cheering on the government are the Conservative-supporting newspapers that are demanding to see solid evidence of a post-Brexit dividend.

However, Juliet Samuel’s commentary in the Daily Telegraph (16.1.2021) did strike a cautionary note.

Predictably the review of EU labour regulations had been greeted by ‘Labour and the country’s rump of Brexit refuseniks as an assault on workers by swivel-eyed Thatcherites’ but she doubted whether ministers were ‘spoiling for a fight against the unions.’

Samuel might prove correct in her prediction, but the labour and trade union movement should be demanding far greater clarity and a real say in the consultation process.

Press opinion is dominated by pro-Brexit and pro-business voices and a concerted fightback will need detailed facts and figures from the trade union movement to stress the importance of the 48-hour limit for key workers such as those in the NHS and the impact of removing overtime and bonuses from wage calculations.

Union researchers have no time to lose in coming up with answers to some vital questions: How many workers are safeguarded by the 48-hour safety cap?  How will holiday pay be affected? What are the dangers in allowing employers to simplify the rules on maintaining records on the working week?

Images: Mail on Sunday 17.1.2021; Daily Telegraph, 16.1.2021