Brexit Update 10:  On the Eve: The Invisible Contents of Cox’s Codpiece

In Brexit Update 9, I pointed out that the Maybot will be trying to gain support for her deal from Labour MPs who represent Leave-voting constituencies.  In line with this plan, she has announced a £1.6 billion post-Brexit “Stronger Town Fund”, to be given to impoverished, “left-behind” towns, most of which voted Leave; half of the money is due to go to towns in the Midlands and North of England.  This is widely regarded as a “Brexit Bribe”.[1]   On Thursday, March 7, in the leave-voting town of Grimsby, in north-east Lincolnshire, in the North of England, she also made a speech in which she issued a last-ditch appeal to British voters and MPs to back her deal.  She once again accused Corbyn of having abandoned Brexit, made use of her blackmail cards of either No Deal or No Brexit unless her deal is passed, appealed to the European Union to renegotiate the backstop and ended with her usual reprogrammed reference to “the bright future”.[2]

None of this appears to have brought the deal any closer to being accepted by Parliament.   As for changes to the backstop: a “joint work stream” of UK and EU experts has now been set up to discuss “alternative arrangements” to the backstop; but, as Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, pointed out in the House of Commons on February 27, that is “hardly a breakthrough”.   As I mentioned in Brexit Update 9, the Attorney-General, Sir Geoffrey Cox, has been negotiating with the EU to try to secure what he calls a “legal codicil” to the Withdrawal Agreement that will ensure a time-limit and/or a unilateral UK exit right in relation to the backstop.  It has been widely pointed out that, even if he were to secure such a codicil, he himself would then provide legal advice on the results of his own negotiation, thus casting doubt on his impartiality.  But it is clear that he has failed to deliver.   Right-wing Tory Brexiteers have derisively dubbed the proposed codicil “Cox’s Codpiece”.   Sir Geoffrey, who is known to be something of a showman, made an attempt at bravado (and distraction) in a speech to the House of Commons, after he had been asked if the Withdrawal Agreement is going to be reopened:

“It is government policy to achieve the necessary change in the backstop which will cause me to review and change my advice….it’s come to be called ‘Cox’s Codpiece’ – what I am concerned to ensure is what’s inside the codpiece is in full working order”.

But as one tweeter pointed out: “Whatever is under Cox’s Codpiece isn’t visible to the EU – it would be amusing if it wasn’t the biggest national crisis we’ve experienced in 80 years – if truth were told he’s told it he knows he’s time wasting for @10DowningStreet”. [3]

Indeed, EU negotiators were so annoyed by May’s implication in her Grimsby speech that the EU is to blame for the impasse in negotiations that they responded with what has been described as a “slap in the face”.  The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, proposed a unilateral exit right from the backstop for the UK that would mean that Great Britain (ie England, Scotland and Wales) could, if it wanted, unilaterally leave its separate customs union with the EU, but Northern Ireland would have to stay in the full EU customs union.  As the UK’s Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, pointed out in an indignant tweet, this simply returns the negotiations to the EU’s original proposal that separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.  Such a separation is of course impossible for Theresa May to accept, because it is anathema to the DUP.[4]

Meanwhile. the government is in trouble again with its plans for No Deal.  The Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling – widely known as “Failing Grayling” – has had to pay £33 million to Eurotunnel in settlement of a threatened court action.  In December, the Department for Transport awarded contracts to three ferry companies to provide additional freight capacity for lorries on ferries.  Eurotunnel complained that the contracts were handed out in a “secretive” way, so that it was not given the chance to compete.  Instead (as was mentioned in Brexit Update 5), one of the contracts went to a company called Seaborne Freight, which turned out to have no ships and never to have run a ferry service.  There have been widespread calls for Grayling to resign.[5]

In addition, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, has been facing calls for her resignation after she told the House of Commons that killings of civilians by British soldiers and by police during the Northern Ireland “Troubles” were “not crimes” — a statement for which she has apologised but which has caused widespread anger, particularly in Northern Ireland and Ireland, adding to the historical tensions that have already been revived by Brexit.[6]  And recently May herself has caused outrage by saying that there is “no direct correlation” between an epidemic in the UK of often fatal knife attacks committed by and against young people and austerity cuts to the police force.[7]

Tomorrow, the House of Commons will vote again on May’s Brexit deal, billed as a “revised” deal but, it appears, exactly the same as the deal that was overwhelmingly rejected in January. The latest news is that Theresa May is flying to Strasbourg tonight for last-minute talks with Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission.[8]  Rumours are circulating that maybe tomorrow’s vote will be delayed — or maybe May and Cox will have been able to cobble together some kind of “revised” deal – ie something that looks different in some way from the last one.

But at present all the indications are that tomorrow the deal again faces defeat, even if some commentators believe it may fail by a narrower margin than on the previous occasion (others are predicting again a three-figure vote against).  As Keir Starmer, the Shadow  Brexit Secretary, pointed out on February 27, when proposing the motion that called for Corbyn’s alternative Brexit plan to be accepted by Parliament,  Theresa May had two options after losing the previous vote on her deal:  1) to plough on with her failed deal in her usual blinkered way; 2) to drop her “red lines” and seek genuine engagement with other parties to work out a EU deal that would be acceptable to Parliament.  She chose option 1 and her alliance with the most right-wing elements of her party.  Tomorrow the result of this narrow and rigid strategy will be made clear.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/mar/03/16bn-for-left-behind-towns-as-may-woos-labour-mps-to-back-brexit-deal

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAVELztVf9Q (May’s speech begins at about 3’10”)

[3] https://inews.co.uk/news/brexit/geoffrey-cox-codpiece-backstop-brexit-talks-backstop/

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/mar/08/a-slap-in-the-face-barnier-sets-may-on-course-for-brexit-defeat

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47414699

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/mar/07/karen-bradley-northern-ireland-troubles-urged-apologise-richard-dannatt

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/04/knife-boosted-by-toxic-mix-of-cuts-to-police-and-youth-services

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-47530505