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Peter Goldsmith’s advice was crucial to Tony Blair’s Government during the run-up to the Iraq War.  Had the then Attorney General not said that the further use of force would be legal, the Commons would have refused to back it.  Goldsmith produced three versions of his advice, the first of which suggested that it would not, and the third of which said in unambiguous terms that it would.  His gradual change of position remains famous to this day (or notorious, if you prefer).  The claim is that he changed his view to suit the man who appointed him, and it seems well-founded.

ConservativeHome is told that last week’s meeting of senior Cabinet Ministers was full of wishful thinking about the Northern Ireland backstop from former Remain-supporting and Leave-backing members alike.  Ingenious efforts were made to talk round the plain meaning of Article 49

“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement”.

It is true that Article 50, apparently inserted as an assurance to the DUP, says that although, as we have seen, there is to be full aligment north-south, there are also to be no new barriers east-west.

“In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market”.

How one reconciles these aims strains imagination.  It is worth noting in passing that the Robbins plan agreed last week, which Downing Street appears now to have resiled from, may have set aside the requirement of Executive and Assembly agreement.

But at any rate, Geoffrey Cox played a crucial role in the meeting’s conclusion.  “He simply cut through all the waffle and told them, with all the command of a QC, that the backstop means what it says,” we’re told.  In other words, that there’s no way of escaping it without a strict time limit or a unilateral departure mechanism being slapped on it.  That swung those present.

The office of Attorney General is sometimes thought of as a kind of Cabinet add-on – a role that is technically rather than politically important.  But as the very different Goldsmith and Cox stories demonstrate, it can sometimes turn the story of a government.

39 comments for: The enduring importance of the Attorney-General

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