Cox outlines pragmatic defence for Brexit to Commons sceptics

Warts and all presentation of backstop details unlikely to win over May’s critics

Attorney general Geoffrey Cox in the House of Commons: said backstop was as unwelcome to the EU as it was to Britain because it would give Northern Ireland’s traders a competitive edge over their EU counterparts. Photograph: PA

Geoffrey Cox brought the drama of the courtroom into the House of Commons on Monday as he made the case for Theresa May's deal as if it was a highly dubious defendant. As a successful criminal barrister, Cox knows there is no point in attempting to gloss over a client's darker side when seeking to persuade a jury that the charge is not proven.

So he outlined the terms of the backstop, warts and all, acknowledging that Britain could not leave it without the EU’s agreement.

"The truth of the matter is that this Northern Ireland protocol would represent a solemn commitment to the people of Northern Ireland that this government will honour and respect the Belfast Agreement. I make no bones about it, I would have preferred to have seen a unilateral right of termination of this backstop. I would have preferred to have seen a clause that allowed us to exit if negotiations have irretrievably broken down," he said.

Legal advice, he said, could only inform what was a political decision that required MPs to weigh the risk of being trapped indefinitely in the backstop against the risk of a disorderly, no-deal Brexit or no Brexit at all.


The DUP's Ian Paisley was impressed by Cox's candour but said it only served to make clearer than ever the backstop's consequences for Northern Ireland.

‘Utterly shameful’

"It is the case that the stark reality of what he has set out, to any person living in Northern Ireland, is that as a result of NI ending up in this backstop, which would be utterly shameful, NI would become an annex of the United Kingdom when it comes to trading relations during the backstop period," Paisley said.

Cox made a good argument for the backstop being as unwelcome to the EU as it was to Britain because it would give Northern Ireland's traders a competitive edge over their EU counterparts. Unfortunately for Theresa May, however, Emmanuel Macron undermined that argument fatally after last week's EU summit, when he told French reporters that Britain could be trapped in the backstop if it failed to compromise on fishing rights.

As the prime minister prepares to open five days of debate ahead of a “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal, the number of Conservative MPs publicly opposed to it suggests it will be defeated heavily next week. Dublin is jittery at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit if May’s deal is rejected but there is no concession short of the effective neutering of the backstop that could sway enough MPs for her to win the vote.