Terrible legal assessment
This is a terrible assessment from Downing St’s perspective, writes the FT’s Jim Pickard, and will crush Theresa May’s hopes of getting her “meaningful vote” in the House of Commons tonight.
Bear in mind that it was the Cox conclusion in January – that the UK could remain in the EU customs union “indefinitely” because of the Irish backstop – that inspired more than 100 Tory MPs to join the rebellion against their own prime minister.
Mr Cox, in his new opinion, said that the new documents produced on Monday night did “reduce the risk” that the UK could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained within the protocol’s provisions. But even that was qualified, with the proviso “at least in so far as that situation had been brought about by the bad faith or want of best endeavours of the EU”.
The attorney-general repeated his view that as long as both parties had “diligence, flexibility and goodwill” there should be a way of striking an agreement that would end the backstop. But that was a “political” judgement, he said.
Cox’s advice was crucial
The attorney-general Geoffrey Cox has warned that the legal risk that the UK could be trapped in the Irish backstop is “unchanged”, despite Brexit assurances won by Theresa May.
Mr Cox’s advice was seen as crucial for winning over Tory Eurosceptic MPs and Democratic Unionist party MPs, writes political correspondent Henry Mance.
In November he advised that the Irish backstop – the insurance mechanism to avoid a hard Irish border – could endure “indefinitely”. But many political observers had expected him to change his advice after this month’s negotiations between the UK and Brussels.
Earlier on Tuesday, the former Brexit secretary David Davis said:
If Geoffrey Cox is at all equivocal about it then I think it will fall again.
A ‘devastating’ blow for Theresa May
The FT’s political commentator Robert Shrimsley notes:
The last paragraph (below) of Geoffrey Cox’s statement looks devastating for Theresa May’s hopes of winning this vote. His comment that the “legal risk remains unchanged” could be game over for the prime minister.
The Attorney General has done his best for Mrs May saying he believes the new tweaks reduce the risk of permanent entrapment in the Irish backstop. But he goes on to say that this is a political, not a legal judgement. This is the key point Brexiters must make their decision on the basis on politics, not law. The question for them is the balance of risks. If they vote down the deal how great is the risk of something they consider worse.
The Brexit hardliners divide into two groups. Those looking for a way to climb down and back Mrs May and those who are not. The second group will feel vindicated in their judgement that this is not enough to change their vote. The first group will find it hard to argue that this legal advice is sufficient to justify returning to the fold. If they needed Geoffrey Cox to give them cover to switch, he has not really done so. No wonder sterling has started to fall.
Pound under pressure
Sterling surrendered its gains on the US dollar and fell sharply after the UK attorney general said prime minister May’s revised Brexit deal could leave Britain lodged in a customs union with the EU indefinitely.
The pound was off 0.75 per cent against the US dollar, trading at $1.3048, just after the release of the memo from Geoffrey Cox. It had traded as high as $1.3288 just after Monday night’s New York close. It was down 0.9 per cent against the common currency, with one euro buying £0.8621.
Legal risk remains
Attorney general Geoffrey Cox says that the legal risk remains unchanged, which will raise concerns about locking the UK into a permanent relationship with the EU after Brexit. His legal opinion on the new provisions will be crucial to winning over MPs worried about being stuck in a customs arrangement with the EU.
The link to Cox’s legal advice is here: https://assets.pub…tion_co..___2_.pdf
Keir Starmer on the new backstop plan
Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, a lawyer, says on Twitter that having examined the changes to the withdrawal agreement in relation to the backstop, he would be “surprised” if attorney general Geoffrey Cox would be able to change legal advice he gave back in December.
To recap, Mr Cox said at the time that the Irish backstop – an insurance policy that keeps the Irish border open in the event of a no-deal Brexit – could go on indefinitely, with Westminster and Brussels suspended in “protracted and repeated” rounds of talks over how to solve the issue.
Tuesday will be a decisive moment in Westminster. Meetings and briefings are taking place throughout the day that will decide whether the prime minister has any hope of seeing through her tweaked withdrawal package.
This is the approximate timetable for how things are set to pan out (writes the FT’s Seb Payne)
9:00am: the “Cash Council” of Brexit-supporting lawyers met to examine the prime minister’s proposals and decide whether it will endorse or reject the tweaks to the Irish border backstop. Eurosceptic MPs are hanging on this group to decide whether the changes will have legal meaning.
9:30am: the Cabinet met. Geoffrey Cox, attorney general, presented his legal opinion to ministers on whether the UK still risks being trapped in the backstop.
Before 11:30am: Mr Cox publishes his legal advice for MPs to digest.
11:30am: the House of Commons sitting commences, while Theresa May briefs Conservative MPs about her latest proposals.
12:30pm: Mr Cox will deliver a statement to the Commons on his legal advice.
Early afternoon: Speaker John Bercow will select the amendments and the “meaningful vote” debate to approve or reject the deal begins.
6pm: the European Research Group of MPs will meet to decide whether they will endorse or reject Mrs May’s latest deal.
7pm: voting commences.
Brexit in balance as parliament votes on latest deal
Welcome to the FT’s Brexit live blog on a crucial day for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, as parliament debates and then votes on the latest attempt by prime minister Theresa May to secure a divorce agreement. After agreeing new assurances late last night in Strasbourg designed to make sure that Britain will not be tied to the EU indefinitely, Mrs May now will put her revised deal to the test.