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Why Geoffrey Cox has been booted in the codpiece by Brussels and Brexiters

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has had his backstop alternative rebuffed by Brussels. Credit: PA

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox appears to have taken a leaf out of the Theresa May political playbook by equating compromise with a plan that simultaneously alienates more-or-less everyone.

The proposal he loudly and proudly calls a codpiece - to reform the Northern Ireland backstop - has been rejected by EU negotiators under Michel Barnier.

But from the details about it which I've gleaned, I cannot remotely see how it would have been accepted by the Tory ERG Brexiters that it was supposed to placate.

Cox's cunning plan was to rework the powers of the arbitration panel that would be created if the UK ever ratifies the Withdrawal Agreement.

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, has rejected the attorney general's proposal. Credit: AP

After Brexit, it would become a vehicle to decide whether the UK had made reasonable and credible proposals to replace the backstop, and it could rule that the UK could therefore get out of the backstop.

This would in effect mean that neither the UK or EU would any longer possess a veto on whether the utility of the backstop had come to an end.

Which is why it was almost immediately rejected by Barnier.

The point is that would out-source to a non EU body a decision on whether the EU's single market would be compromised.

And that is a principle the EU's 27 leaders have said they will not breach.

Perhaps recognising this EU sensitivity, Cox also said that if the panel - which consists of equal numbers of UK and EU nominees - ruled that the backstop had outlived its purpose, it would be replaced by a "mini" or scaled down backstop.

Just like Theresa May, Geoffrey Cox has been unsuccessful in convincing the EU's 27 leaders, which include Germany's Angela Merkel (Right) to make concessions on the backstop. Credit: AP

There wasn't a lot of detail about this mini backstop, but it is thought to be a conventional free trade agreement.

It would be combined with a system for checking that agricultural products and livestock meet EU standards some way away from the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic (at the border of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).

The mini backstop has the smell version of the so-called Malthouse ideas, which the EU think don't work - or at least not yet.

So Cox was sent back to Westminster, to think again.

But I am not sure this is the catastrophe for Mayist diplomacy it may seem, since I find it difficult to believe that the Tory Brexiters of the European Research Group would have been converted by it.

That's because it doesn't offer any guarantees of escape from the backstop on any specified date, and certainly not any time soon.

So even if Barner has swallowed it, I think it highly unlikely it would have been sufficient for the PM's reworked deal to be ratified by MPs.

  • What next?
Even if the Government and the EU agree, that doesn't mean MPs in the Commons will allow the deal to pass. Credit: PA

Well, Barnier - against what the EU has said it would do - volunteered three or four ways to give additional legal force to his consistent claim that the backstop will in practice be temporary, even if not provably so ex ante.

Cox will examine these - and, presumably, return to Brussels with redrafted versions of his own putative solutions.

And for what it's worth, players on both sides of the Channel seem resigned to defeat - or rather they expect that whatever reassurances Cox wins on the backstop, they will not be sufficient to deliver victory in the Commons at the very last for May and her deal.

What is extraordinary is that even though the stakes could not be higher, there is almost no sense of jeopardy around any of this.

Because what all politicians are discounting is that May's deal flops and then the following day MPs vote to take off the table the no-deal Brexit that should logically follow on March 29.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will present Brussels with newly drafted backstop solutions. Credit: PA

That said, there is massive jeopardy around an associated event, which is over which lobby the PM enters when the no-deal motion is put to a vote.

I wrote about this at some length on Tuesday.

But I forgot to point out that EU leaders are agog about whether the PM will vote for or against a March 29 no-deal Brexit.

Logically she should vote to retain the option of no-deal, if she wishes to be true to almost three years of her rhetoric.

But were she to do that, it is not clear how she could credibly and consistently represent MPs and the UK if the vote goes as expected, and MPs order her to sue the EU for a delay to Brexit.

It is unclear whether the PM would for for or against a March 29 no-deal Brexit. Credit: AP

And if she too votes to abandon no deal, her credibility would be shot to pieces because of the sheer supertanker size of her u-turn.

To lead is to take responsibility, but what if every possible course of action represents personal failure and humiliation?

Theresa May is the most unflappable premier of this or perhaps any age, but surely even she cannot be immune from any hint of anxiety at the horrors that await her next week.