The darling of Conservative Party conference has a vital role to play in the coming monthsby Raphael Hogarth / November 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
Four months ago, nobody knew who Geoffrey Cox QC was. If the Tory MP ever made it into the papers, it was for the stratospheric sums he billed when moonlighting as a barrister. Yet now, following Cox’s appointment as attorney general, cabinet ministers are demanding to see his advice before deciding whether to back the prime minister’s Brexit deal, the DUP wants his opinion to be published, and even Labour frontbenchers are itching to know his view. All of a sudden, Cox is the doyen of Brexit.
Such notoriety is unusual for an attorney general. This is not normally a big political job. The office holder is not in the cabinet and, for most of the 20th century, attorneys general did not attend most cabinet meetings. They were held at arm’s length from policy discussions so that when the need for legal advice arose, there would be no suggestion that they had massaged the law to flatter their political views.
But Cox cannot be the kind of attorney general who lurks in the background as a mere adviser. He is an unabashed Brexiteer and far too compelling a political performer for that. As the warm-up act for Theresa May at Conservative Party conference, he effortlessly wooed a hall full of activists with his lyrical paean to self-government. “Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation,” he enthused, “rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks!” He was, in fact, quoting the Areopagitica, a 1644 pamphlet distributed to parliamentarians by John Milton. For listeners not familiar with the work, this sounded like the sort of thing Geoffrey Cox might come up with himself.
More important than his flair as an orator, though, will be his facility with the small print. As the Brexit agreement morphs from political intention into legal text, politicians need someone to help them understand it. At two key moments, the process will turn on what the attorney general has to say.
First, when the prime minister comes to cabinet with her deal, Cox will be asked by cabinet colleagues exactly what is legally binding and what is not. Will the political declaration on the future relationship, full of ambitious commitments to cooperation, have any legal force? Will the UK’s promise to pay the EU £39bn be binding whatever happens, or only if we reach a future trade…