Yesterday evening saw Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General who has become the darling of many a Tory since Conservative party conference due to his ability to give a speech that did not irrevocably suck, at the dispatch box. The reason was that the House of Commons had voted to force the government to make the legal advice they had received on the Brexit deal public, something that Cox was arguing was a bad idea. There is much strangeness here to talk about – I will have to stick only to the weirdest of it all for the sake of brevity.
For a start, the Attorney General is a real backroom sort of a job, and thus very rarely addresses the House from the dispatch box. It has been forty years since the last time it happened, to put this into perspective. So, the very situation was surreal: a government that has argued vociferously for sovereignty to return to the House of Commons from where it has supposedly been in exile in Brussels is now arguing to deny something major the House has voted for. The constitution is pretty clear on this one: parliament is sovereign. Not the government; HMG is only such because it commands the will of parliament. If parliament votes against the government on something, that’s life. Whether the Attorney General thinks something is a bad idea or not is constitutionally irrelevant if it has a majority in the Commons, whether he sounds like Mufasa or does not.
There was a particularly great exchange between Cox and Nigel Dobbs, the DUP MP. It involved Dobbs questioning how Cox, as a unionist, can back May’s deal. Cox responded that although he worried on that front, he feels the backstop is legally unsustainable for any reasonable length of time because it is way too advantageous to Northern Ireland. The Attorney General is correct on this front of course – if the backstop was activated, it would make Northern Ireland the only part of the world both in the EU single market and in the UK. It would make Northern Ireland suddenly extremely attractive to business. It could make Northern Ireland massively wealthy, in fact. And the DUP have spent all their energy arguing against it happening, all because it would make Norther Ireland different from Great Britain. Except, it already is different from Great Britain in all sorts of ways, notably the abortion laws being entirely not the same. Yes, the DUP demand that in certain ways Northern Ireland remain different from the rest of the UK, but they will not stand for it to be different in a way that could possibly double Ulster’s GDP inside of a decade. No sir, we’d rather risk the government falling and Corbyn becoming PM and uniting Ireland before we’d let that sort of thing take place.
Cox, of course, spoke about the deal in real terms, which, even though it logically made it sound worse than May usually makes it sound, in actually fact made it sound better. The Attorney General was levelling with MPs about the trade offs involved in the deal and was thus able to talk in cogent terms about how this is almost certainly as good as it will get with the EU. If Cox was the main figure trying to sell the deal, I reckon it might manage to get a majority. But he isn’t, and we have one of the worst spectacles that might ever grace British politics coming our way this Sunday instead – if the prime minister and the leader of the opposition can agree which cheesy weekend shows they have to miss first.