May faces Cabinet showdown after Brussels deal backlash

Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Theresa May faced a Brexiteer backlash last night as her Cabinet began consideration of a deal with Brussels.

Number 10 confirmed that a draft deal had been reached by officials negotiating in Brussels after months of protracted talks.

Tory MP and leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg ''Photo: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

Tory MP and leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg ''Photo: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

Ministers were invited to Downing Street to read documents relating to the agreement before a special Cabinet meeting today.

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

And Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the influential European Research Group of dozens of Tory MPs, said: “It is a failure of the government’s negotiating position, it is a failure to deliver on Brexit and it is potentially dividing up the United Kingdom.”

A series of ministers were seen entering and leaving Downing Street following the Number 10 announcement.

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.”

Scottish Secretary David Mundell said ministers would have to “reflect on the detail”.

“That’s what the government has been working for all this time, to get a deal, and negotiators have worked incredibly hard to get us to this point but we have to reflect on the detail and consider at Cabinet tomorrow,” he said.

Today’s special meeting could potentially be a flashpoint for tensions between Brexiteers and Remainers around the Cabinet table, with speculation that Leave-supporting ministers including Penny Mordaunt, Esther McVey and Liam Fox could be prepared to walk out if a deal ties the UK too closely to Brussels.

The deal follows intense negotiation in Brussels, with measures to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland the main stumbling block.

Irish broadcaster RTE reported that a “stable” text had been agreed on the thorny issue of the Irish border.

The broadcaster said the deal involved one overall “backstop” in the form of a UK-wide customs arrangement – as sought by Mrs May – but with deeper provisions for Northern Ireland on customs and regulations.

A review mechanism is understood to be part of the text, but it is unclear whether that would meet the demands of Tory Brexiteers – including some in the Cabinet – who want the UK to be able to unilaterally walk away from the deal to prevent it becoming a permanent settlement.

A Number 10 spokesman said: “Cabinet will meet at 2pm tomorrow to consider the draft agreement the negotiating teams have reached in Brussels and to decide on next steps.

“Cabinet ministers have been invited to read documentation ahead of that meeting.”

Brexiteers lined up to condemn the deal before its details had even been officially confirmed.

Mr Johnson told the BBC: “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-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith suggested Mrs May’s administration could collapse over the deal.

He warned that if reports of the deal’s contents were true, the government was “breaking their own agreed position and will be bringing back something that is untenable”.

He added that “if the Cabinet agrees it, the party certainly won’t”.

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, said that the deal as reported would leave Northern Ireland “subject to the rules and laws set in Brussels with no democratic input or any say”.

He added: “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.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the party would vote against the deal if it failed to meet its tests.

“We will look at the details of what has been agreed when they are available,” he said.

Neither Brussels nor Dublin confirmed that a deal had been reached, despite the Number 10 announcement.

A spokesman for chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said the latest in the negotiations had been set out earlier by commission vice president Frans Timmermans, who said that while the talks were making progress “we are not there yet”.

A spokesman for Ireland’s deputy premier Simon Coveney said that negotiations were at a “sensitive” juncture.

“We are not commenting on media speculation around the withdrawal agreement,” the spokesman said.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs, said the reported deal represented a betrayal of Theresa May’s promise to maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom.

“White flags have gone up all over Whitehall. It is a betrayal of the Union,” he told the BBC.

“If what we have heard is true, this fails to meet the Conservative Party manifesto and it fails to meet many of the commitments that the prime minister makes.

“It would keep us in the customs union and de facto the single market. This is the vassal state.

“It is a failure of the government’s negotiating position, it is a failure to deliver on Brexit and it is potentially dividing up the United Kingdom.

“It is very hard to see any reason why the Cabinet should support Northern Ireland being ruled from Dublin.”

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said he would vote against the deal, claiming it was “vassal state stuff” and urged the Cabinet to “chuck it out”.

He said he expected the deal to be “pretty much” what had been agreed a few weeks ago “we are going to stay in the customs union on this deal, we are going to stay effectively in large parts of the single market and that means it’s vassal state stuff”.

He told the BBC: “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.”

Mr Johnson added: “For the first time since partition, Dublin – under these proposals – would have more say in some aspects of the government of Northern Ireland than London.

“I don’t see how you can support it from a democratic point of view, I don’t see how unionists can support it, and I don’t see how you can support it if you believe in the economic and political freedom of this country.”

He claimed the deal was “making a nonsense of Brexit so I hope the Cabinet will do the right thing and I hope they chuck it out”.

Brexiteer former party leader Iain Duncan Smith warned that if reports of the deal’s contents were true the government was “breaking their own agreed position and will be bringing back something that is untenable”.

He added that “if the Cabinet agrees it, the party certainly won’t”.

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

“Because they are in real trouble if they bring back something that is unacceptable to the party.

“The government puts itself in an impossible position, because they are trying to promote something they themselves said they would never promote. And that makes it impossible.

“How can you ask the party to vote for something which you yourself as prime minister and the Cabinet said they would never ever allow?”