Has Theresa May’s Mufasa just transformed into No 10’s most troublesome minister? Geoffrey Cox – the Attorney General – shot to the public consciousness this month thanks to his star turn as the warm up act for May at Conservative party conference. The seasoned QC gave a barn-storming speech (which drew Lion King comparisons) calling for his fellow Brexiteers to get behind May and prepare to compromise in their quest for a good deal for the UK.
As regular Coffee House readers will be aware, this was the second time Cox had thrown May a lifeline. Prior to his appointment to the Cabinet, the Conservative MP demonstrated his loyalty to Theresa May at a difficult 1922 committee after Boris Johnson had resigned over Chequers by defending the Prime Minister’s plans. It follows that when May appointed Cox as Attorney General, she thought she was getting a top QC who will help guide her out of political turmoil.
The problem for Downing Street is that in recent days, Cox has emerged as a figure who sees himself very much as the government’s Attorney General rather than Theresa May’s. That may well be the right way to look at things constitutionally speaking but for No 10 it creates a headache. Cabinet attendees report that Cox has become a voice of clarity when it comes to the government position. This is because he cuts through the Brexit fudge and says what No 10’s proposed plans mean legally speaking. At this week’s Cabinet, Cox told his fellow colleagues that the proposed backstop plan would mean that Northern Ireland was treated differently to the rest of the UK. He also said that the proposed backstop would leave ‘the UK with no leverage in future talks’. The reply from Theresa May’s side is that the plans are still ‘unionist’ – what ever she means by that.
Cox’s allergy to Brexit fudge presents No 10 with a growing problem. The May approach so far has been to use as loose language as possible in all the agreements with Brussels so as to make what is agreed a grey area (at least temporarily before later revealing to Brexiteers their worst fears were in fact correct) in order to avoid difficult choices and confrontations. But Cox refuses to play ball. As one insider puts it: ‘It’s one thing when a Cabinet minister says their opinion on the backstop – that can be dismissed. It’s another thing when a senior lawyer gives you theirs – that is taken as a statement of fact. It’s much harder to bat away’.
With Cox expected to provide a legal opinion of any final proposals for the Northern Ireland backstop before Cabinet give their approval, the Attorney General could be May’s most troublesome minister.