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Deal in jeopardy as UK's Attorney General says there is still a legal risk of being trapped in backstop

It is now less likely Theresa May’s deal will get through the House of Commons.

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IN A MUCH-ANTICIPATED piece of advice this morning, the Attorney General for England and Wales has said that the latest Brexit deal still presents a ‘legal risk’ of the UK being trapped in the backstop protocol. 

In his official legal opinion to the Prime Minister, Geoffrey Cox said that much of what was agreed between Theresa May and negotiators in Strasbourg last night bolstered the legal standing of the assurances given by the EU to the UK. 

“I now consider that the legally binding provisions of the Joint Instrument and the content of the Unilateral Declaration reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained within the Protocol’s provisions at least in so far as that situation had been brought about by the bad faith or want of best endeavours of the EU,” he told May. 

However, he also noted that the legal risk “remains unchanged” in relation to the UK being able to leave the backstop protocol arrangements if there was no act of ‘bad faith’ on either side. 

Addressing the House of Commons to give more detail on his legal advice he told MPs that what was agreed last night improves the withdrawal agreement and that the House had to make a political judgement about whether the deal was justified. 

He said the provisions of the joint instrument announced in Strasbourg “extend beyond mere interpretation of the withdrawal agreement and represents materially new legal obligations and commitments”.

“There is no doubt in my view that the clarifications in the joint statement and unilateral declaration make substantive and binding reinforcements of the legal rights available to the UK.”

He added: “Matters of law can only inform the political decision each of us must make.”

A large number of MPs and the DUP had earlier said they would not decide on their intentions for this evening’s vote on the deal until they had heard from Cox. 

As Cox was speaking this afternoon, the Financial Times reported that it was unlikely the Northern Ireland party would back the agreement this evening. 

“A DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) source has told the FT ‘no’, they cannot see how the party can back the PM’s deal,” the paper reported. 

Elsewhere, political reporters in London said there were indications some Tory MPs who voted against the deal last time around may now back it. 

Brexit Geoffrey Cox Source: PA Wire/PA Images

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said earlier this morning that he believes the new arrangements appear to “fall short” of what May has promised, but added that his party would reserve judgement until they heard the Attorney General’s advice.

That advice would now indicate that they will remain opposed to May’s deal. Labour had already announced that it would vote against the deal. 

Last night, May hailed the ‘legally binding changes’ to the Withdrawal Agreement that she had secured during talks with the EU. 

The House of Commons is due to vote on the deal at around 7pm after a debate this evening. Last time there was a meaningful vote on a deal, it was voted down by a majority of 230 votes. 

If it fails again, parliament will vote on a no-deal Brexit or an extension to Article 50 which could delay Brexit if the EU is amenable. 

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker last night reiterated that there would be no changes to the Withdrawal Agreement and no further chances to renegotiate. 

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- With reporting by Daragh Brophy

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