Theresa May’s Brexit deal has suffered a fresh blow after the attorney general said the changes only ‘reduce the risk’ of the UK being ‘indefinitely and involuntarily’ trapped in the backstop.
In his legal advice on the prime minister’s Strasbourg agreement, Geoffrey Cox said that ‘the legal risk remains unchanged’ that the UK would have no legal means of exiting without an EU agreement.
The PM’s deal was defeated by a majority of 230 votes in January, and she has spent the past two months securing a new deal that she now insists has secured ‘legally binding’ changes which ensure the Irish backstop cannot be permanent.
After ‘last minute’ negotiations with the European Union, May claims she is now ready to deliver what Parliament asked her to do – ahead of a crucial Commons vote this evening.
However, fears that the EU is trying to trap Northern Ireland into permanent border backstop continues, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has demanded his colleagues to rejects May’s deal again.
Corbyn said May’s tweaked deal, agreed in Strasbourg last night, ‘does not contain anything approaching the changes Theresa May proposed Parliament. That’s why MPs must reject this deal’.
Cox said that documents agreed in Strasbourg ‘reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained’ in the backstop by EU bad faith or a failure by Brussels to use its ‘best endeavours’ to negotiate a permanent deal on the future relationship.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said Cox had confirmed that ‘no significant changes’ had been secured to the Withdrawal Agreement and the Government’s strategy was ‘in tatters’.
This comes after Cox blasted claims he was ‘told to find a way’ to say yes to May’s deal as ‘bollocks’.
Brexiteer Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns tweeted a picture of Cox’s legal advice document and wrote: ‘The Attorney Generals advice is that the legal risk remains unchanged.
‘Nothing has really changed, and it is still a bad deal so unable to vote for this. We must hold our nerve.’
Heading into a meeting with the PM, Brexit minister Robin Walker insisted there had been positive changes that Tory MPs would support.
He said: ‘I’m positive. We’ve seen real progress, more progress than many believed would be possible.
‘I’m not making crystal ball predictions but what we have seen from the Attorney General is this reduces the risk of the UK being caught in the backstop.’
Sir Desmond Swayne said ‘this is an intractable disagreement’.
May swept past waiting journalists with a tight smile but made no comment.
ERG member Andrew Bridgen said: ‘I’m going to see what she says.’
Cox wrote in his legal advice: ‘I now consider that the legally binding provisions of the Joint Instrument and the content of the Unilateral Declaration reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained within the Protocol’s provisions at least in so far as that situation had been brought about by the bad faith or want of best endeavours of the EU.
‘It may be thought that if both parties deploy a sincere desire to reach agreement and the necessary diligence, flexibility and goodwill implied by the amplified duties set out in the Joint Instrument, it is highly unlikely that a satisfactory subsequent agreement to replace the Protocol will not be concluded.
‘But as I have previously advised, that is a political judgment, which, given the mutual incentives of the parties and the available options and competing risks, I remain strongly of the view it is right to make.
‘However, the legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have, at least while the fundamental circumstances remained the same, no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.’