Theresa May’s hopes of getting her Brexit deal through the Commons were hanging by a thread on Tuesday after her attorney general published legal advice warning that Britain could still be trapped in the Irish backstop hated by the DUP and Tory eurosceptics.
Geoffrey Cox said the last-minute changes the prime minister negotiated in Strasbourg on Monday night “reduce the risk” the UK becomes trapped in the arrangement by the EU, but do not eliminate it entirely.
HuffPost UK understands the DUP cannot back May’s deal in light of Cox’s advice, and are likely to be followed by scores of Tory Brexiteers who have said they will be guided by the Northern Irish party.
On Tuesday morning Cox conceded that “the legal risk remains unchanged”, and that if both the UK and EU negotiate in good faith and no trade agreement can be found to replace the backstop, then there would be “no internationally lawful means” of exiting the backstop.
It is likely to turn wavering Tory Brexiteers, who had been awaiting Cox’s judgment on the concessions, back against May’s deal in large numbers. MPs are due to vote on May’s deal on Tuesday night.
They have long been concerned that the backstop could trap Britain in a customs union with the EU, leaving it unable to strike free trade deals around the world.
Senior Tory Brexiteer Owen Paterson said Cox’s advice was “brutally clear” that if the UK and EU try, but fail, to negotiate a trade deal to replace the backstop, the UK cannot withdraw from the from it unilaterally.
Another, Andrea Jenkyns, said she would now definitely vote against the deal and urged colleagues in the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Eurosceptics to “hold our nerve”.
She tweeted: “The Attorney General’s advice is that the legal risk remains unchanged. Nothing has really changed, and it is still a bad deal so unable to vote for this. We must hold our nerve.”
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, a supported of the pro-EU Best For Britain campaign, said: “This is a disaster for the government. This must be the final nail in the coffin of this awful deal.
“There should be no lingering doubts: this deal will leave us trapped and surrenders our sovereignty. I doesn’t ‘take back control’ as Leavers wanted, and it’s a million miles away from what Remainers want.
“The government tried to pull the wool over Parliament’s eyes last time and flopped. MPs must vote down this wretched deal, extend Article 50 and back the only credible route out of this Brexit mess – a public vote.”