James Forsyth

Second Cabinet this week to decide on Brexit backstop

Second Cabinet this week to decide on Brexit backstop
Text settings

It looks like today’s Cabinet will only be the first of two meetings this week. I understand that another one, which may well make an actual decision, is now likely to be held later in the week.

Today’s was significant for an intervention from Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general. Cox’s contribution was about balancing risks. He, I am told, did say that Northern Ireland would be under various, different regulations under the current proposals. But he said that a unilateral withdrawal mechanism—which a large number of Cabinet ministers again backed—wouldn’t be a panacea to all the UK’s problems in the Brexit talks.

I am informed that Cox said even a unilateral mechanism would require another body to rule that the talks had broken down and so the UK could exercise its unilateral right. He also said that a mutual consent clause wouldn’t provide the EU with an effective veto. He argued that the mutual review mechanism now being discussed was a dimensional step forward as it was the first time the EU had acknowledged that the backstop could be ended by anything other than the future economic partnership meeting the EU’s criteria.

Jeremy Hunt, though, warned that without an explicit UK ability to get out from under the backstop, the withdrawal agreement would struggle to pass the Commons. Greg Clark attempted to jiu-jitsu the unilateral argument by arguing that a unilateral mechanism would allow the EU to throw the UK onto World Trade Organisation terms at any point. This, he pointed out, would create an uncertain environment for business.

Penny Mordaunt argued that Brexit was like a plane journey and that people wanted to hear from the pilot at the beginning and the end of the journey and they got worried if they heard from the pilot mid-flight to say that they weren’t going to land when they were expected to. To which, David Mundell—the Scottish Secretary—replied that the passengers would be equally alarmed if they heard that the pilot couldn’t land the plane. To which, Michael Gove—a famously nervous flier—remarked that he always found a gin and tonic helped if that happened. I suspect that all the Cabinet might be in need of a drink before the week is out.