Brexit deal: Theresa May’s cabinet approves EU withdrawal agreement

The prime minister has said she believes with her 'head and heart' that the draft plan is in the national interest

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Wednesday 14 November 2018 20:21 GMT
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Theresa May says cabinet has agreed draft Brexit withdrawal agreement

Theresa May’s cabinet has approved the draft Brexit deal struck by British and EU negotiators paving the way for a critical Brussels summit to rubber stamp it this month.

The prime minister made the announcement on the steps of Downing Street after a marathon five-hour meeting with her most senior frontbenchers.

It means that the EU are set to give the green-light to a European Council summit at the end of November, which if successful could see a vote on the draft deal in the house of commons in early December.

But despite cabinet approval bolstering Ms May, there was increasing speculation in Westminster of a leadership challenge to be launched by Tory backbenchers angry about concessions made in the draft plan.

The prime minister said: “I believe that what I owe to this country, is to take decisions that are in the national interest.

“And I firmly believe with my head and my heart that this is a decision that is in the best interest of our entire United Kingdom.”

She had spent the previous 24 hours holding one-on-one meetings with ministers and allowing them to review the 585-page draft agreement text, with many going into the cabinet at 2pm with ongoing concerns over how the Irish border would be handled after Brexit.

Ms May described debate around the cabinet table as “long, detailed and impassioned”, in an apparent indication that her proposals had come under intense challenge from ministers, but predicted resignations did not materialise.

Reports later suggested that support from ministers was not unanimous and up to ten individuals had spoken out against Ms May's draft deal during the protracted discussion.

The prime minister said outside Number 10: “I firmly believe that the draft withdrawal agreement was the best that could be negotiated and it was for the cabinet to decide whether to move on in the talks.

The choices before us were difficult, particularly in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop, but the collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration

Prime minister Theresa May

“The choices before us were difficult, particularly in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop, but the collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration.”

The text itself had in large part already been approved by ministers with the critical sections relating to the Northern Irish border the main point of contention.

The level of Brexiteer discontent has raised expectations of further letters of no confidence in Ms May from Tory MPs, with a total of 48 needed to trigger a vote on her position.

The Independent understands the threshold is yet to be met, but sources in Westminster said the delivery of further letters to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady was “imminent”.

Brexiteer MP immediately attacked the plan, with the deputy chair of the anti-EU European Research Group (ERG), Mark Francois, highlighting the number of Tory MPs prepared to submit letters calling for a vote of no confidence in the Conservative leader.

He said: “A lot of colleagues are very unhappy with this deal. I would rule nothing out.”

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ERG chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg heightened tension by writing to all of his Conservative colleagues calling on them to oppose the draft deal and arguing that it failed to “match the expectations set out in Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech”.

He went on: “The proposed agreement will see the UK hand over £39bn to the EU for little or nothing in return...For these reasons I can not support the proposed agreement in parliament and would hope that Conservative MPs would do likewise.”

At the same time as the cabinet in London, ambassadors representing the 27 remaining member states met in Brussels for their first look at the complete withdrawal agreement text.

The top diplomats were told by the EU’s deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand, who talked them through technical aspects of the draft and a document outlining the future trading relationship.

Diplomatic sources said some member states made “interventions”, indicating they are worried the plans may give Britain a competitive advantage. National governments will get their say in the coming weeks.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, also wrote to European Council president Donald Tusk to say that the withdrawal negotiations had concluded and the next step in the process could begin.

He said: “You will find attached the text of the draft withdrawal agreement, for which the Government of the United Kingdom has signalled its approval.

“On this basis, the Commission recommends to the European Council (Article 50) to find that decisive progress has been made in the negotiations on the orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, allowing the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement to be concluded and the next step of the process to be initiated.

“I look forward to our continued good cooperation with a view to bringing this important matter to a successful conclusion.”

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