U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May “agreed” to a compromise on the Irish backstop on Sunday “contingent” on the approval of her Cabinet, two senior EU diplomats said, but her ministers rejected the proposal.
The package of measures was aimed at providing the U.K. with greater reassurance that the controversial Northern Ireland backstop would not be permanent, so improving the chances of the deal passing muster with Brexiteer Tory MPs. It involved reaffirming the power of an arbitration panel created by the existing deal to suspend the backstop if one side is acting in bad faith, the diplomats said.
“She agreed,” one senior EU diplomat said, “providing to have the backing of the Cabinet, which she didn’t get.” The diplomat said the agreement was on “a legal document” designed to provide “guarantees for good faith on both sides.”
The Cabinet’s refusal was apparently tied to objections by U.K. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, the diplomats said. May has tasked Cox with making a legal interpretation aimed at easing fears among British MPs that the U.K. could become permanently trapped in the backstop arrangement.
EU officials and diplomats have reacted negatively to Cox’s role in the talks in recent weeks. One official complained that the attorney general has approached the negotiations with the condescending swagger of an English barrister — his profession before becoming an MP.
The official said Cox had even managed to offend the EU’s generally unflappable deputy chief negotiator, Sabine Weyand, by calling her “my dear” in what was perceived as a sexist, patronizing tone. A U.K. official said: ‘The attorney general refers to many people as ‘my dear’ — both men and women. He’s a friendly fellow and it’s a turn of phrase, nothing more.’
The tentative compromise accepted by May over the weekend was aimed at boosting the chances of the Brexit deal — composed of the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration — winning approval from MPs in a vote scheduled for Tuesday evening in the House of Commons.