Theresa May’s Cabinet has given its blessing to a draft agreement on the terms for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, as well as an outline political declaration on the future relationship.
The agreement was announced by the prime minister after a marathon five-hour Cabinet meeting.
The move clears the way for a special Brexit summit in Brussels – probably on November 25 – for EU leaders to approve the deal, followed by a crucial Commons vote in which MPs will hold Britain’s future in their hands.
Speaking moments after the meeting, Mrs May acknowledged there would be “difficult days ahead” and announced she will outline the deal to MPs in the House of Commons on Thursday.
And she added: “This is a decisive step which enables us to move on and finalise the deal in the days ahead.”
After seeing the text, DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said “people will be appalled by this deal”.
Mrs May added: “These decisions were not taken lightly but I believe it is a decision that is firmly in the national interest.
“I firmly believe, with my head and my heart, that this is a decision which is in the best interests of the United Kingdom.”
Senior ministers met amid a storm of condemnation for the proposed deal from Brexit-backing Tories, with prominent Leaver Peter Bone warning Mrs May in the House of Commons that she risked losing the support of “many Conservative MPs and millions of voters across the country”.
The chair of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tories, Jacob Rees-Mogg, wrote to Conservative MPs calling on them not to support Mrs May’s plan, arguing it would see the UK “hand over £39 billion to the EU for little or nothing in return”.
The deal is “unacceptable to unionists”, will “lock us into an EU customs union and EU laws”, and is “profoundly undemocratic”, said Mr Rees-Mogg.
DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds met with the prime minister on Wednesday night.
Mrs Foster tweeted afterwards: “We had a frank meeting tonight with the prime minister lasting almost an hour. She is fully aware of our position and concerns.”
More insight into the DUP position, however, came from Mr Wilson after the full draft text was published online.
He said: “Why would a prime minister wish to sell a deal to the House of Commons which keeps us tied into the customs union, which keeps us tied to EU regulations, which doesn’t allow us to break free of those except by the permission of a body outside the UK? And for that we pay £39 billion? I think that people will be appalled by this deal.”
UUP leader Robin Swann said his party wanted time to study the draft text before drawing firm conclusions.
“If the words in the draft withdrawal agreement confirm the speculation, this has been a monumental error of judgment on behalf of the DUP which will have a devastating long-term impact,” he said.
He added: “A stark example is that Northern Ireland will remain aligned to a limited set of rules which includes VAT and excise in respect of goods, and state aid rules, so rather than the prospect of being the best of both worlds this would restrict any potential opportunity.”
The European Commission released the text of the withdrawal agreement – running to 585 pages – on its website, as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier set out the contentious Northern Ireland backstop, aimed at avoiding a hard border with Ireland if there is no wider deal:
• 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.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the backstop was not his preferred solution.
“The backstop does have to be there. It does have to be legally operable, it can’t have an expiry date and it can’t be possible for any one side to withdraw from it unilaterally.
“But it is important to appreciate that it is our intention that the backstop should never be invoked and that if it is invoked it should only be temporary until such a time that a new agreement is in place to supersede all or part of it.”
Mr Varadkar recognised that this was a “difficult time” for the unionist community in Northern Ireland.
“I want to say to them that the Good Friday Agreement will be protected and that includes a recognition that we respect the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and that we respect the principle of consent that there can be no change of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland unless a majority of people in Northern Ireland say so.”
Tory former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine told the Press Association: “I think the prime minister is facing defeat in the Commons.
“I think she will not get it through the House of Commons.
“And there will be a vote of confidence which I think she will win.”