May faces grilling from MPs as 'divided Cabinet' back Brexit deal

Theresa May is braced for a furious backlash from Tory Brexiteers as she presents her deal on Britain’s EU withdrawal to the Commons.

The Prime Minister cleared the first hurdle when Cabinet ministers finally approved the draft terms of her agreement with Brussels at a stormy five-hour meeting on Wednesday.

But she now faces a battle to get it through Parliament as pro-Leave Conservative MPs – as well as some Remainers – lined up to condemn the plan, accusing her of breaking promises and leaving the UK at the mercy of Brussels.

On Thursday morning, European Council President Donald Tusk announced the EU would hold a summit on November 25 to finalise the UK's withdrawal agreement.

His announcement came as Shailesh Vara quit as Northern Ireland Minister, saying he cannot support May's Brexit agreement, which he said "leaves the UK in a halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign nation".

Following the release of the 585-page agreement document, Jacob Rees-Mogg – the leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group – wrote to all Tory MPs urging them to vote against it.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has written to all Tory MPs urging them to oppose the deal. Credit: Press Association

Rumours continue to swirl at Westminster that the tally of Conservative MPs who have submitted letters of no confidence in Mrs May is about to reach the 48 threshold needed to trigger a vote on her position.

Mr Rees-Mogg said that he was not among those MPs who had written to the chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, but suggested he could be “very close” to doing so.

“Certainly this has dented my confidence,” he told ITV’s Peston programme. “Politics depends on trust and this document is shattering to trust.”

While the Cabinet agreed to collectively support the agreement, there was speculation that some ministers were so unhappy that they could still quit in protest.

Reports suggested as many as a third of the 28 ministers attending the meeting in No 10 voiced doubts about the deal.

The full text of the 585-page agreement was published following Wednesday's Cabinet meeting.

Sources told ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston that Michael Gove was the only Leave-supporting cabinet minister who spoke in favour of the deal, describing it as an "extraordinarily divided cabinet".

Peston said it was impossible to rule out ministerial resignations and that he expects to see a Conservative leadership challenge "within days".

The level of Brexiteer discontent has raised expectations of further letters of no confidence in Mrs May from Tory MPs. Sources said the delivery of letters to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady was "imminent", with a total of 48 needed to trigger a vote on Mrs May's position.

The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said "there is still a lot of work" and "the path is still long and may well be difficult" to achieve an orderly withdrawal and an "ambitious and sustainable partnership".

DUP leader Arlene Foster said she had a "frank meeting" with the prime minister, adding: "She is fully aware of our position and concerns."

European Research Group chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg said members of the group should not support the deal.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the deal was not in the national interest.

  • What did Theresa May say?

In a statement in Downing Street after the meeting, the prime minister said the deal was "the best that could be negotiated".

Mrs May acknowledged there will be "difficult days ahead" and that the decision will "come under intense scrutiny".

Speaking outside Number 10, the prime minister said: "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."

Theresa May speaks in Downing Street. Credit: PA

She said the "decisive step" will allow the Government "to move on and finalise the deal in the days ahead".

Mrs May said: "When you strip away the detail the choice before us is clear - this deal which delivers on the vote of the referendum, which brings back control of our money, laws and borders, ends free movement, protects jobs, security and our Union, or leave with no deal or no Brexit at all.

"I know there will be difficult days ahead. This is a decision that will come under intense scrutiny and that is entirely as it should be and entirely understandable."

Mrs May announced she will make a statement to the House of Commons on Thursday and concluded: "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 which is in the best interests of our entire United Kingdom."

  • What has the reaction been to the agreement?

Mrs May now faces a fight to get the deal through Parliament.

The prime minister had what Arlene Foster called a "frank" meeting with the DUP leader lasting almost an hour on Wednesday evening.

The DUP's 10 MPs prop up her minority administration in the Commons and there has been doubt over whether the party will support the deal.

Ms Foster earlier said there would be "consequences" for Mrs May if she put forward a deal which threatened to break up the UK.

In a letter to Conservative MPs, European Research Group chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg said they should not support the deal.

He said the proposals released do not match the expectations set out in Mrs May's Lancaster House speech.

"The proposed agreement will see the UK hand over £39 billion to the EU for little or nothing in return," Mr Rees-Mogg said.

He said the deal is "unacceptable to unionists", will "lock us into an EU customs union and EU laws" and is "profoundly undemocratic".

"For these reasons I can not support the proposed agreement in Parliament and would hope that Conservative MPs would do likewise," he said.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon likened the deal to being "blackmailed into a choice between the frying pan or the fire", claiming it posed a threat to jobs.

Ms Sturgeon said: "It is obvious that the prime minister can barely unite her Cabinet on this deal and it is also increasingly clear that she will struggle to get a majority for it in Parliament."

She added: "If this deal is indeed rejected by Parliament, then the UK Government must return to the negotiating table to secure a better one."

Nigel Farage tweeted: "Any cabinet member who is a genuine Brexiteer must now resign or never be trusted again, this is the worst deal in history."

  • What has been agreed on the Northern Ireland backstop?

Michel Barnier speaks at a press conference in Brussels. Credit: AP

At a news conference in Brussels, the EU's chief negotiator Mr Barnier set out the contentious Northern Ireland backstop, aimed at avoiding a hard border with Ireland if there is no wider deal.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the EU and UK would establish a shared customs territory, with Northern Ireland applying some additional rules for goods to ensure a free-flowing border.

He made clear the backstop would remain in place "unless and until" a better solution is agreed.

Mr Barnier said the backstop agreement will mean:

  • If there was no final agreement at the end of the transition in 2020, there would be an "EU-UK single customs territory".

  • Northern Ireland would therefore remain in the same position as Great Britain, avoiding a customs border in the Irish Sea.

  • Northern Ireland will remain aligned to the single market rules that are essential for avoiding a hard border.

  • The UK would apply the EU's customs code in Northern Ireland and would allow Northern Irish businesses to bring goods in to the single market without restrictions

Mr Barnier said the draft agreement made clear Northern Ireland would retain "unfettered market access to the rest of the UK".

"For competition to be open and fair in such a single customs territory we have agreed provisions on state aid, competition, taxation, social and environmental standards," he said.

"This will guarantee that both EU and UK manufacturing will compete on a level playing field.

"An essential condition for the single customs territory to cover fisheries and aquaculture products will be to agree between the Union and the UK on access to waters and fishing opportunities."