British Prime Minister Theresa May will attempt to sell her divorce deal from the European Union to the House of Commons Thursday as a divided country examines the finer details of the 585-page draft document.
Standing outside Downing Street late Wednesday, May announced that she had won the backing of her senior ministers after a debate that had lasted five hours. “This is a decisive step which enables us to move on and finalize the deal in the days ahead,” she said.
Hours earlier, there had been talk that some mutinous members of her Cabinet might resign and that remained a possibility on Wednesday night. Even as the meeting drew to a close, rumors swirled in Westminster that May could face a vote of no-confidence from within the ranks of her own Conservative Party.
Difficult decisions made
But on the steps of Downing Street, May seized the upper hand. She acknowledged the debate had been difficult, and that decisions had not been taken lightly.
“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,” she said.
May’s success in facing down a rebellion – at least for now – marked a pivotal moment for her leadership. Cabinet backing gives the Prime Minister crucial breathing space, but her troubles are far from over. May must now get the deal through the House of Commons, where her Conservative Party does not command a majority, and opponents smell blood.
Thursday’s front pages reflected the difficulties ahead. The Financial Times predicted a “backlash” following the “ferocious Brexit battle,” while the Daily Mail focused on the Prime Minister’s defiant tone with the headline, “I stand to fight.”
The Guardian, which had supported Remain, pointed to the divisions that May’s Brexit plan had created under the banner “a split cabinet, a split party and a split nation.”
Knives are out
The Conservative Party is deeply divided between hardline Brexit supporters and others who voted to remain in the EU, and Wednesday’s breakthrough is only the beginning of what is expected to be a protracted and painful political process.
Chief among hardliners’ concerns is that the agreement will tie the UK to the EU’s customs union and parts of the single market free-trade area for years to come, without any say in how the bloc is run.
A sign of the peril faced by May came at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons earlier Wednesday, when one of her own MPs, Peter Bone, accused her of “not delivering the Brexit people voted for.” Bone said May would “lose the support of many Conservative MPs and millions of voters across the country.”
One of the Prime Minister’s most vocal rivals, arch-Brexiter and MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, was critical of the proposal.
In a statement, he said that “the proposed agreement will see the UK hand over £39 billion ($50.7 billion) to the EU for little or nothing in return.”
The Prime Minister was not without her supporters, however. Brandon Lewis, Chairman of the Conservatives & Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth, said in a tweet that May’s deal is “absolutely the right deal for Britain. It gets people what they voted for – control of our money, borders and laws.”
Corbyn slams ‘shambolic negotiations’
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, laid into the PM’s deal. “After two years of bungled negotiations, from what we know of the government’s deal, it’s a failure in its own terms,” Corbyn said, repeatedly describing the negotiations as “shambolic.”
He slammed May for offering a choice between a “botched deal and no deal.” It seems unthinkable that his party would support May’s deal when it comes to a vote.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Thursday morning, shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer said that the document was a “failure of negotiation.”
“We’ve read and analyzed all 500 pages – it’s a miserable failure of negotiation.”
He said there was “huge detail” about “issues like the backstop which the government says it doesn’t intend to use,” but said it was “vague” in other, key areas.
“For the future relationship, what it does intend, it’s seven pages, it’s vague in the extreme. Only three of those are about the future economic relationship.”
“We talk about blind Brexit but this is about the blindest of blind Brexits.”
Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon said late Wednesday that she had had a telephone conversation with May in which the PM had promised that Scotland’s “‘distinctive’ interests had been protected,” but contested that interpretation.
“I pointed out that there isn’t a single mention of Scotland in the agreement, that it disregards our interests, and puts Scotland at a serious competitive disadvantage,” Sturgeon tweeted.
Potential stumbling block
Opponents of the deal take issue with the part of the agreement that deals with the border between Ireland, which remains in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.
Critics say the border agreement would, at least temporarily, tie the UK to the EU’s trading rules without a way out.
Rees-Mogg called the different treatment of Northern Ireland “unacceptable” and said that locking the country into EU customs rules was “profoundly undemocratic.”
May must now attempt to secure the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs prop up her minority government. DUP leader Arlene Foster said in a statement on Wednesday that the party’s “desire for a deal will not be superseded by a willingness to accept any deal.”
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in a tweet that he was “pleased” that a deal had been reached but that his government “regrets” the UK’s decision to leave the bloc.
“I am pleased an agreement has been reached between EU and UK negotiators on a draft Brexit Withdrawal Treaty. While I welcome these developments, Brexit is not our policy and is something we regret. However, we respect the vote of the people of the UK.”
But May insisted that she felt the draft withdrawal agreement was “the best that could be negotiated.”
She also made it clear that if Brexit-supporting MPs in her own party conspired to kill the deal, they could end up destroying their ultimate goal of leaving the EU.
The choice, she said, was stark: “This deal, which delivers on the vote of the referendum, which brings us 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.”
That line was intended as a warning to rebels that if they vote down her deal, they risked precipitating a political crisis that could end with a second referendum. It was the first time that May had acknowledged that Brexit could, in theory at least, be stopped.
May’s strategy is to seize the momentum. With the UK Cabinet now in line, an emergency summit of the EU council – the 28 member states that make up the European Union – is likely to be called for November. At this summit, the member states will agree to the withdrawal text, allowing it to move to legislative chambers of both the EU and the UK.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, welcomed Wednesday’s developments. “This agreement, is a decisive, crucial step on concluding these negotiations,” he said. “It is also the achievement of a methodology which has been a negotiation carried out in transparency from the word go and fully in respect of our respective mandates.”
EU Parliament chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt echoed the sentiment, saying in a tweet that while he hoped “one day the UK will return” that “in the meantime this agreement will make a Brexit possible, while maintaining a close relationship between the EU and UK.”
CNN’s James Frater, Stephanie Halasz, Erin McLaughlin, Bianca Nobilo and Peter Taggart contributed to this report.