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Jacob Rees-Mogg rounds on Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay as backstop legal row erupts

5 min read

Tory Eurosceptics have taken aim at Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay after Theresa May's last-ditch bid to save her EU deal suffered a major legal blow.

Jacob-Rees Mogg and Conservative colleagues seized on legal advice from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox which makes clear that the changes Mrs May agreed with the EU will not allow the UK to leave the backstop unilaterally if it is triggered.

Mrs May had insisted that the agreement - which she struck following late-night talks in Strasbourg - meant "there would be nothing to prevent the UK instigating measures that would ultimately dis-apply the backstop" if talks with the EU break down.

But Conservative Brexiteers trained their fire on the top Cabinet minister at a parliamentary committee hearing just hours before Tuesday's night's crucial vote.

The stormy session came as Mrs May addressed a packed meeting of Tory MPs and urged them to get behind her deal - with Brexiteers emerging from the meeting signalling that they still could not vote for her pact.

Mr Rees-Mogg, who chairs the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tories, told Mr Barclay that the UK still could not quit the backstop unilaterally under the agreement - a key demand of Brexiteers.

He warned: “This has been advertised as unilateral. I’m focusing on the word unilateral, this is not something the UK can do on its own, it needs approval from a joint committee between the UK and the EU…

“It simply says we could ask to leave the backstop. We’ve always been able to ask to leave the backstop. That’s not in any sense an improvement or a development”.

Fellow Conservative eurosceptic John Whittingdale said: "The attorney general’s final paragraph essentially says that unless you can show breach of faith, rather than simply intractable differences, nothing has changed and the UK has no intentionally lawful means of exiting the protocol arrangements, save by agreement."

And Brexiteer Pete Bone added: "When we went into the EU, Article 50 allowed us to pull out after two years with no say from the EU on whether we did so or not… what you’re suggesting that I sign up to and vote for tonight Secretary of State is the opposite, not the right to pull out of the backstop."


The testy hearing came as the Prime Minister told Tory MPs to get behind her agreement in a packed meeting of backbenchers in parliament's Portcullis House.

But a grim-faced Andrew Bridgen left the meeting - which began with loud desk-banging and cheers for the Prime Minister - early, telling reporters that "nothing has changed".

The Conservative MP said he was "very suspicious and concerned" that the Prime Minister was attempting to "bounce" MPs into backing her deal - and confirmed his colleagues had been pushing party bosses for a delay to tonight's vote.

He said: "This is the most important vote we're even going to have probably in our political careers. And we're being bounced into it in less than 24 hours. It's not reasonable.

"And if the amendments are everything everyone wants then what's the problem of us having full scrutiny over them?"

Fellow Conservative Eurosceptic Mark Francois said the meeting with the Prime Minister had been "polite".

But, in a sign Mrs May could struggle to swing her party behind her tonight, he said: "Question after question after question was directed at her on the legal advice and particularly on paragraph 19 of the attorney general's statement where he makes the critical observation: 'however, the legal risk remains unchanged'.

"And colleague after colleague asked the prime minister about that."

He warned: "Speaking purely and entirely for myself, I regret to say I found the Prime Minister's answers wholly unconvincing."


However, Home Secretary Amber Rudd insisted her colleagues could be won round after a "very thoughtful" meeting with the Prime Minister - and predicted that Mrs May could win tonight's vote.

"You know, some people are not yet completely convinced but they're clearly thinking about it," the Cabinet minister told reporters.

"And she made the point that you know we have to look at this politically as well. A lot of people want to look at this legally but also politically, what the consequences are for the country if we don't get this through."

Ms Rudd added: "I think she's going to win tonight. I think we're all going to win tonight.

"That's the important outcome we're all really hoping for because otherwise the instability that would follow would be so unwelcome.

"What I felt today was people really thinking about it and working out what the consequences were.

"They need to get this through for the stability that we all want and there's a strong feeling out there that we'll get growing consumer confidence and business investment if we get this through.

"So that I hope is what people think about when they think about how they're going to vote."

One Tory MP was said to have told the Prime Minister: "I was looking for you to bring a rabbit back out of the hat - you've managed a hamster. It's good enough for me."

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