May stakes her Brexit deal on attorney-general's legal eye

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Theresa May faces many problems as she tries to nail down a divorce agreement with the European Union but one looms over them all: pro-Brexit Tories do not trust her.

The prime minister’s answer is to hand the negotiations to someone she thinks they will believe – Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general famous for his florid rhetoric and booming baritone voice.

Cox, 58, a successful lawyer in his own right, was promoted to be the government’s most senior law officer from a position of political obscurity last July. Now he’s leading May’s last ditch attempt to win a significant concession from the EU, negotiating face-to-face with the bloc’s top officials in Brussels.

If Cox can’t get a deal in the next week, the premier will face losing power over Brexit in a revolt from members of Parliament who want to delay the split to avoid the economic disaster of a no-deal departure.

Cox’s quest
Cox is seen as credible among Brexit supporters because he has spent his seven months at the top of government leading the revolt against May’s deal from within her cabinet. His mastery of fine legal detail won him admirers around the cabinet table, and when it came to delivering his official legal judgment on the divorce terms May negotiated, he did not mince his words.

Cox made clear that May’s draft Brexit deal means the U.K. cannot escape from the contentious backstop plan for avoiding a hard border with Ireland, which means Britain will remain trapped inside EU customs rules potentially forever.

In the view of two senior officials, Cox is influential because he’s not beholden to anyone. His verdict on whatever agreement May signs up to will be crucial because he’s seen as independent, and a committed Brexiteer, the people said. That makes May’s decision to give Cox himself the job of negotiating the detail potentially a shrewd one. If he backs the compromise, it stands the best possible chance of winning the support of Parliament, too.

Cox is working on what May’s team regards as the only viable options for getting a deal: securing some kind of time limit on the backstop, or a way for Britain to be free to exit the arrangement at a time of its choosing.

The other policy that May was exploring – “alternative arrangements” based on new technology, known as the “Malthouse Compromise” – is not a serious contender, according to one person familiar with the matter.

There isn’t much time for Cox to complete his work. May returns to Brussels on Wednesday, while Cox and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay are expected to follow on Thursday to hammer out the legal small print. May’s allies think she has only until 27 February, when Parliament could vote to take Brexit policy out of her hands.


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