What does it take to boost Tory morale these days? Oddly enough, the answer appears to be an hour-long session on troubling legal advice. With an Opposition Day debate leading to a demand for Theresa May to publish the EU withdrawal bill legal advice in full, the Prime Minister attempted to satisfy angry MPs by sending her Attorney General Geoffrey Cox to answer questions on the legal implications of the proposed Brexit deal.
The Brexiteer – who drew comparisons to the Lion King’s Mufasa with his barnstorming conference speech – told MPs that while the government was disinclined to publish the advice in full, his presence ought to go some way to satisfying them given that an attorney general has only appeared in this way in Parliament a handful of times in the last 50 years.
While it’s safe to say Labour MPs, Tory Brexiteers and the DUP still wish for the full advice to be made available, Cox’s appearance at the despatch box did go some way into rallying the troops. This was because, unlike No.10, Cox did not try and gloss over the flaws in the EU withdrawal agreement. Instead, he chose to speak to MPs like adults and be honest about the pros and cons.
The Attorney General was abundantly clear that there was no unilateral exit from the dreaded backstop. He said there was no way of guaranteeing that the UK would not be trapped in it indefinitely. When asked by the DUP’s Nigel Dodds about what this meant for Northern Ireland, Cox said he at first struggled with the agreement because he was a unionist. But he had decided, after educating himself, that the special arrangement for Northern Ireland in goods would annoy both the Republic and the EU states so that it would not be permanent. He said he found hope in the fact that the backstop is uncomfortable for both sides:
‘I would have preferred for it to include a unilateral exit clause but I do not believe we are likely to be trapped in it permanently. This represents a sensible compromise. It has unsatisfactory elements but the matter for the House is to weigh it up with the alternatives.’
Cox sounded like a slightly more persuasive version of Michael Gove on the Marr show this Sunday. Both Brexiteers have broken rank with No.10 (who claim the deal wins in every way) by deciding to sell the deal by acknowledging its flaws and then saying why despite these flaws, they still back it. In the Chamber, Cox didn’t win round everyone – in fact there were many figures, including the DUP’s Nigel Dodds and Dominic Raab, who remain vehemently opposed despite his replies to their questions. However, by being frank with MPs, Cox did manage to win one of the warmest reactions on the Tory benches a Cabinet minister has received in recent weeks.