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Geoffrey Cox 'ditches UK demand for Brexit backstop end date and unilateral exit clause'

4 min read

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox risks fresh anger from Conservative Brexiteers amid reports he has shelved attempts to try and put a time limit or unilateral exit clause on the controversial Northern Ireland backstop.

According to the Telegraph, the Cabinet minister - who has been leading efforts to secure changes to Theresa May's Brexit deal - has conceded that the two major demands of Tory eurosceptics are too "blunt" and will not be accepted by the European Union.

Ministers briefed on Mr Cox's thinking said he is instead trying to secure an independent "arbitration mechanism" allowing Britain or Brussels to serve notice that the backstop should come to an end.

But that approach is likely to fall short of Brexiteers' demands for full, legally-binding changes to the substance of Mrs May's EU withdrawal agreement.

The EU has meanwhile insisted that any arbitration mechanism agreed by the two sides should be overseen by the European Court of Justice, another no-no as far as the Brexiteers are concerned.

The report comes after Conservative Eurosceptics made it clear that an exit mechanism and expiry date remain central to any backing they might give Mrs May's deal when she brings it back to the Commons for a second meaningful vote.

Eight Brexiteers - led by veteran Tory Sir Bill Cash - are due to weigh up the outcome of the attorney general's talks with the EU before telling fellow Brexiteers whether or not to get behind the Prime Minister.

Theso-called "star chamber", has already called for a "clearly worded, legally binding, treaty-level clause which unambiguously overrides" the text of the Prime Minister's withdrawal agreement.

They have insisted that any changes secured by the Attorney General in Brussels "must go beyond simply re-emphasising/re-interpreting the temporary nature of the backstop" and result in a change to Mr Cox’s earlier legal advice that it would “endure indefinitely".

And they have demanded a "clear and unconditional route out of the backstop if trade talks fail" - such as a "a time limit or a unilateral exit mechanism".


Tory MP Steve Baker - a key player in the European Research Group of MPs - said he did not "want to pre-judge the work of the star chamber".

But he signalled that the approach being pursued by the Attorney General was unlikely to win support among his colleagues.

"This seems to indicate a satirical approach to fulfilling the Brady amendment which the Government whipped for," he told The Telegraph.

"The Brady amendment required that you replace the backstop with alternative arrangements. That's light years away from tweaking arbitration mechanisms."

A Downing Street spokesman said: "The Attorney General continues to pursue legally binding changes to the backstop that are necessary to ensure it cannot be indefinite.

"We will not however comment on the specifics of the negotiations at this critical stage."


The DUP's Westminster leader Nigel Dodds on Sunday night made it clear that his party - who Mrs May relies on for her slim Commons majority - would only accept legally binding, treaty-level change to the deal.

"We need something which, whatever its legal form, has legal binding effect and which changes the current meaning of the Withdrawal Agreement, and which makes clear that it cannot be indefinite, and it cannot be a trap both for the United Kingdom generally and for Northern Ireland in particular," he told the BBC's Westminster Hour.

Mr Dodds added: "It has to be treaty-level change. It has to be a change which isn’t some kind of subordinate document. It has to be treaty-level, legally binding, which makes it very very clear that the current interpretation, the current meaning of the Withdrawal Agreement, is re-opened and changed."

The backstop aims to avoid a hard Irish border by keeping Britain tied to EU customs rules in the event that no other arrangement is found during future trade talks between the UK and Brussels.

While both sides have repeatedly said that they do not want to use the arrangenment, Eurosceptics fear that Britain will be unable to leave if it is triggered.

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