LBC's Political Editor: How May's Deal Depends On Attorney General's Advice

12 March 2019, 10:52 | Updated: 12 March 2019, 10:56

Theo Usherwood

By Theo Usherwood

Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General
Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General. Picture: PA

Can Theresa May win tonight's meaningful vote on her withdrawal agreement? Theo Usherwood explains what needs to happen for her to win.

Theresa May needs an early win this morning when it comes to the legal advice from Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox.

Last time round he concluded the UK would remain permanently in the backstop until an alternative had been found.

That spooked the DUP and Tory Brexiters: in their view the backstop was a trap to keep the UK in the customs union.

Today, however, if the Attorney-General can conclude the backstop is only temporary then there is a chance the DUP will support Theresa May’s revised deal.

Of course, lawyers are already lining up to insist that nothing has changed. The shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer insists because the EU has not signed up to Theresa May’s unilateral declaration that the UK can withdraw from the backstop, it is worthless.

The Attorney-General had hoped to avoid answering questions from MP. But, threatened with being summoned to the Commons, he will now give an statement to MPs and take their questions at around 12.30pm.

His performance in front of MPs is absolutely critical. Assuming the statement goes ahead, Cox must be assured and confident as he is pressed on whether the PM’s unilateral declaration does exactly what it says on the tin.

If Cox nails it in the Commons, it is likely the DUP will side with the Government. The support of the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds is also critical because it would be very difficult for members of the European Research Group of Brexiters as Conservatives to vote against Theresa May’s revised deal if the DUP is supporting it.

There is likely to be a small cohort within the ERG that will not support the deal. And there will also be a few Tory Remainers who are likely to vote against the deal, hopeful that Article 50 is extended and they can push for a second referendum.

But there is another win for the Government if the DUP and ERG support the deal and that is it will make it much easier for Labour MPs in leave constituencies to stick their necks out and support the Prime Minister.

If as many as 20 Labour MPs do just that, it could well be enough for Theresa May’s deal to pass tonight at the second time of asking. And if that happens, it would be the most extraordinary political turnaround.