Twice in the last seven days, Theresa May’s attorney general Geoffrey Cox has made key interventions that have led one cabinet source to conclude he is “currently the most important person in the government”.
Cox is simultaneously credited with blowing up a Brexit deal that some perceive could have carved off Northern Ireland or kept the UK in a customs union forever, and with saving the prime minister by convincing Brexiteer ministers they should not resign en masse.
On Thursday, it was the Mufasa-like voice of Cox that shredded an agreement being drawn up by May’s Brexit adviser Olly Robbins — with the authority of Number 10 — and EU negotiator Sabine Weyand.
With Robbins dialled in on a secure line from Brussels, Cox told a mini-cabinet summit of select ministers the plan would keep the Northern Ireland-only backstop on the table — thus threatening the union — and provide no guarantee of how the UK could quit a customs union after Brexit.
According to one government source, “Number 10 had no idea Cox was going to turn up and say their plan was a dud. They thought they were close to agreeing a deal. But after hearing what he had to say, it was clear no one could sign up to it.”
It was Cox’s Thursday slapdown that convinced a majority of ministers the proposal was unacceptable, another government source said. It set off a chain of events that saw Brexit secretary Dominic Raab head to Brussels on Sunday to tell Michel Barnier much the same, and Leave-supporting ministers threaten to resign unless the plan was changed.
But while Cox had seemingly caused an almighty headache for Downing Street, he leapt to their aid with a second intervention on Monday night.
The so-called “pizza club” meeting of ministers critical of the Number 10 plan, hosted by Andrea Leadsom, was billed as the moment Brexiteers would decide whether to resign from the cabinet in protest, possibly bringing down the prime minister.
Cox filled in the ministers who were not present on Thursday on the consequences of the original proposal. But, according to a source who was there, his presence convinced those on the brink of quitting that with him in the cabinet, Downing Street would not be able to dupe them again, as several Brexiteer ministers believe happened when they signed up to the backstop in December.
“Geoffrey is an expert on treaty law. He can tell the cabinet: This is what this means,” said a government source close to the pizza club. “It means Number 10 can no longer present cabinet with a fait accompli and expect them to agree to it.”
A Whitehall source added: “This is the most significant development since Chequers. The fundamental dynamics of cabinet have changed because of Cox. The Brexiteers now believe his presence means they won't have the wool pulled over their eyes by Number 10 again, so they don't have to resign.”
At Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, May told ministers there were two things she could not accept: a deal that carves off Northern Ireland, and a deal without a break clause allowing the UK to leave a customs union, according to a cabinet source.
Chief whip Julian Smith indicated that up to 100 Tory MPs could vote against a deal that did not have a break clause, and that he had received phone calls from Remain-supporting MPs expressing concerns.
A cabinet source said it was telling that while May now appeared convinced of the need for a break clause, she was unable to provide a form of words that explained how it would work. They said this suggested no work had been done on the break clause because Number 10 was previously planning to sign up to a deal without one. Ministers believe they secured assurances from May that they would be given legal advice on how a break clause could be enacted.
With cabinet critics calmed, there were no resignations and the PM avoided another moment of grave danger.
However, Cox’s actions over the last week have left Brexiteers asking themselves: Is the Leave-supporting former QC keeping Downing Street honest on Brexit, or is he really, as one former cabinet minister told BuzzFeed News, “Number 10’s stooge”?
Brexiteer MPs have noted that Cox must be highly trusted by May to have been her warm-up act at conference, using his speech to defend her Chequers plan. In July, Cox wrote a letter to colleagues attempting to convince them that under the Chequers proposal for a “common rulebook” with the EU, Brussels would no longer be able to make law in the UK.
A former cabinet minister told BuzzFeed News: “No one could understand why all the Brexiteers in cabinet appeared to fold in behind the PM yet again, but it turns out Number 10 has actually been half-clever for once.
“Geoffrey has held the cabinet together this week by convincing Brexiteers he too shares their concerns and that they can trust him to be across the legal detail and that he will hold May’s feet to the fire. But this is a trap. In reality, he is Number 10’s stooge.”
A senior member of the European Research Group of Tory MPs said: “Everyone was surprised that Geoffrey was appointed attorney general. Then even more surprised that he introduced May at conference. But it makes sense when you realise Number 10 have got Cox to do their bidding and fob off the Brexiteers. So far it’s working.”
Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Wickham at email@example.com.
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