Theresa May faces showdown with cabinet after draft Brexit deal agreed in Brussels

Prime minister faced an immediate backlash from Brexiteers and DUP partners after agreement was announced

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Tuesday 13 November 2018 21:25
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Theresa May is preparing for a showdown cabinet meeting at which she will demand ministers back a draft Brexit deal finally reached by British and EU negotiators.

The prime minister called in her most senior frontbenchers for one-on-one meetings as the breakthrough emerged, in a bid to secure their backing ahead of the crunch cabinet on Wednesday.

But a furious backlash hit Ms May within minutes of the draft deal being announced, with Conservative Brexiteers threatening her leadership and her DUP partners vowing to block it in the Commons.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn branded the government’s handling of negotiations as “shambolic” and also signalled that his party was likely to vote against the draft deal.

The proposed settlement means negotiators finally came to an agreement on how to handle the vexed issue of the Irish border after months of painstaking discussions, with officials working into the early hours in recent days.

If the cabinet agrees on the deal, it would clear the way for Brussels to announce a special summit to sign off the agreement before the end of November.

Downing Street confirmed a draft deal had been reached at 5pm on Tuesday, with ministers immediately invited in for individual talks and to read documents relating to the agreement before a special cabinet meeting scheduled for 2pm Wednesday.

Leave-backing ministers Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom were among those who left No 10 without comment, but speculation continued that they or other Brexiteer cabinet members Penny Mordaunt, Esther McVey and even Brexit secretary Dominic Raab may quit.

Theresa May: 'Brexit negotiations are now in the endgame'

One insider indicated that if a flashpoint was to come, it would be in the full cabinet on Wednesday when ministers had considered the text and marshalled their arguments. The position of environment secretary Michael Gove appeared central to the proposals’ success.

But the response from critics outside the cabinet was less muted, with backbench Tory Brexiteers launching a sustained attack on the proposals despite details remaining vague.

For the first time in a thousand years, this place, this parliament, will not have a say over the laws that govern this country. It is a quite incredible state of affairs

Ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson urged his ex-cabinet colleagues to “chuck it out” or resign, warning the proposals made a “nonsense of Brexit”.

He said: “For the first time in a thousand years, this place, this parliament, will not have a say over the laws that govern this country. It is a quite incredible state of affairs.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg emerged from a meeting of the Brexit-backing European Research Group to say that: “White flags have gone up all over Whitehall. It is a betrayal of the union.”

The critical stumbling block has been over what happens to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic if no trade deal is secured by the end of the Brexit transition period in December 2020, with Brussels having wanted the north to stay in a customs union with the EU to keep the border open.

Under the “backstop” arrangement said to be in the draft text, the whole UK would remain in a customs arrangement with the EU instead – a condition sought by Ms May – until a future deal is secured, though there would be deeper provisions for Northern Ireland on customs and regulations.

A review mechanism is also understood to be part of the text, which would determine when the UK would leave the backstop arrangement, but it is unclear whether it meets the demands of Brexiteers – including some in the cabinet – who want Britain to be able to unilaterally walk away.

Ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith warned that if reports of the deal’s contents were true then Ms May’s administration could collapse amid the backlash.

Asked if the government’s days were numbered, he said: “If this is the case almost certainly, yes.”

Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the DUP whose MPs prop up Ms May’s minority administration, said the deal as reported would leave Northern Ireland “subject to the rules and laws set in Brussels with no democratic input or any say”.

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He said: “We object to that on constitutional grounds that our laws would be made in Brussels, not in Westminster or Belfast. That is the fundamental red line.”

Despite the vitriol, government chief whip Julian Smith told reporters: “I am confident that we will get this through parliament and that we can deliver on what the prime minister committed to on delivering Brexit.”

Another Conservative MP, Jonathan Djanogly, mocked Leave-backing colleagues on Twitter, saying: “How come all these Brexiteers are throwing their toys out of the pram .... before we know the deal terms.

“Could it be that they always intended us to jump naked off the cliff whatever the terms!”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the party would vote against the deal if it failed to meet its “six tests”, highly unlikely given one is to deliver the “exact same benefits” as the single market.

He said: “We will look at the details of what has been agreed when they are available. But from what we know of the shambolic handling of these negotiations, this is unlikely to be a good deal for the country.”

Neither Brussels nor Dublin confirmed a deal had been reached, despite the No 10 announcement.

A spokesman for chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier accepted that talks were making progress, but indicated “we are not there yet”.

A representative of Ireland’s deputy premier, Simon Coveney, said negotiations were at a “sensitive” juncture, adding: “We are not commenting on media speculation around the withdrawal agreement.”

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