In the end, the star of Conservative conference was a Brexiteer. Only it wasn't Boris Johnson – or even Jacob Rees-Mogg. Instead, it was someone with a much lower media profile – Geoffrey Cox QC. Theresa May's recently appointed Attorney General stole the show with a Mufasa-inspired barn-storming stage routine. In it, Cox’s booming baritone echoed across the hall as he gave a robust defence of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union – and May's Chequers agreement:
As Conservative MPs watched from the front row seats, a few had to admit that they weren't sure who their colleague was. The bulk found that they didn't have his phone number. Prior to Cox being appointed Attorney General, the 58-year-old MP has been mostly absent from the Westminster party scene. He doesn't take part in any of the various Tory WhatsApp groups and his job as a successful QC has meant that he spends a considerable amount of time outside of Parliament. A consequence of which is that he is the wealthiest MP in terms of outside earnings. 'Geoffrey isn't one to go to the Parliament bars and I think a lot of the younger MPs only worked out who he was this year,' explains one Conservative backbencher.
Yet, despite a lack of schmoozing on Cox's part, in recent months he has become one of the most important figures in government. The reason? Although it went under reported at the time, Cox's appointment to succeed Jeremy Wright as Attorney General was a piece of shrewd politics by No 10. After all, what's the best thing to do when you're in trouble? Hire a top QC.
There were several factors behind the move. Firstly, Cox is far more experienced – and a much bigger heavyweight – in the legal world than Wright. Wright was often on the receiving end of jibes from colleagues who questioned his legal experience. In contrast, the MP for Torridge and West Devon is at the top of his game. He co-founded Thomas More Chambers and has handled a wide-ranging number of cases – including appeals in the Supreme Court. In 2015, he successfully defended Geoff Webster, the deputy editor of The Sun, in a trial resulting from Operation Elveden.
The second reason Cox was a smart hire is that he is a Brexiteer – in fact, the only Brexiteer QC at hand. Given that he will need to convince all the Brexiteer MPs of the accuracy and reliability of the EU withdrawal agreement, it is much more helpful to the government to have someone with Leave credentials on side. He offered a glimpse of his ability to do this – as well as his loyalty to Theresa May – prior to his appointment when at a difficult 1922 committee after Boris Johnson had resigned over Chequers, Cox defended the Prime Minister's plans. Cox came through for May again this week. With crunch time fast coming up the track on Brexit, No 10 will be hoping he can make it a hat-trick.