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Theresa May’s Brexit plan: a split cabinet, a split party and a split nation (Guardian)

17 November 2018


Guardian title: Theresa May’s Brexit plan: a split cabinet, a split party and a split nation

Guardian subtitle: ‘Collective’ decision by ministers to press ahead – but Brexiters may back push for no-confidence vote

Theresa May will launch a high-stakes battle to sell her Brexit deal to parliament on Thursday, after clinching the support of her deeply-divided cabinet during a fraught five-hour meeting in Downing Street.

Emerging from No 10 on Wednesday night, May said she believed “with my head and my heart” that her deal was the best one for the UK – and the only alternatives were no deal, or no Brexit.

She said her ministers had taken a “collective” decision, to press ahead with finalising the deal in Brussels, which she will then have to bring back to parliament for approval; but it was clear there had been significant dissent.

There were a series of dissenting voices from Brexit supporting ministers, as the meeting overran its intended length by two hours. One Whitehall source said the environment secretary, Michael Gove, had been the only leaver to speak in favour.

“This is a decision that was not taken lightly, but I believe it is firmly in the national interest,” May said, adding that cabinet had held “a long, detailed and impassioned debate”.

Cabinet sources said Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, made the most impassioned interventions against the draft agreement and warned of chaos should the government lose a meaningful vote in parliament.

May twice refused a request from McVey to hold a vote in the room. One cabinet source said that McVey was “shouted down” by the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill.

Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, said they were “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”.

Up to 11 cabinet ministers were said to have spoken out against the deal. Supportive voices came from the communities secretary, James Brokenshire, and the education secretary, Damian Hinds.

Brokenshire, a close ally of May, said the prime minister should “follow her judgment”, and while Hinds expressed some reservations that there would be no unilateral way to withdraw from the backstop, according to a source he told ministers that the deal “has to be better than the alternative”.

May will now face questions from sceptical MPs on the 585-page withdrawal agreement – effectively the divorce deal – published on Wednesday night alongside a seven-page outline of Britain’s future relationship with the EU.

The documents confirmed one key concession that has enraged Brexiters: the UK will not be able to unilaterally exit the Irish backstop. Instead that decision would rest with a joint, independent arbitration committee with an equal number of British and EU representatives, as well as outside members. The EU and the UK “decide jointly within the joint committee that [the backstop] … is no longer necessary,” the draft agreement said.

Within minutes of the documents being published, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the ardently pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), had written to all his Tory colleagues with a detailed rebuttal, urging them to join him in voting it down.

Amid rumours that Brexiters were sufficiently angry about the details of the deal to seek to trigger a vote of no-confidence in the prime minster as Tory leader, Rees-Mogg said he would “not be surprised” if colleagues did so.

May took a defiant stance in her statement, insisting that “there will be difficult days ahead, this deal will come under intense scrutiny and that is entirely as it should be and entirely understandable.”

She said: “What I owe to this country is to make decisions in the national interest and I firmly believe that, with my head and my heart, this deal is in the best interest of our entire United Kingdom.”

Government officials highlighted what they claimed were a series of negotiating victories on the fraught question of the backstop – including “best endeavours” clauses, obliging both sides to make efforts to ensure it never comes into force.

May drank a glass of wine with the cabinet before stepping out to speak on the Downing Street steps. No 10 denied any cabinet ministers had explicitly threatened to resign and said the prime minister had set the tone by acknowledging there were “difficult and uncomfortable” decisions that had been taken.

The prime minister and her cabinet will now turn their attention to promoting the deal, to the public and their backbench colleagues.

After the release of the deal, Philip Hammond and Greg Clark almost immediately convened a conference call with business leaders, to brief them on the details.

No ministers resigned on Wednesday evening after the lengthy meeting broke up but there were fears that walkouts could follow.

Julian Smith, the chief whip, would not comment on possible resignations, telling reporters outside the prime minister’s office in the Commons that it was “not surprising we had to have such a long cabinet” given the importance of the issue.

The key May ally insisted that the meeting had been positive and was confident May’s deal would be approved by MPs, although he would not say when a vote would take place other than it would be “hopefully before parliament before Christmas”.

Before the cabinet meeting, May held one-to-one meetings with key ministers – including Penny Mordaunt and Andrea Leadsom – on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in a bid to assuage their concerns that the UK could slide into a permanent customs union with the EU.

Scottish Conservatives, including the Scottish secretary, David Mundell, who attended the crunch meeting, had also sought assurances over fishing rights.

Rumours were swirling at Westminster late on Wednesday that a fresh flurry of letters from angry Tories could be submitted to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, the mechanism to spark a no-confidence vote.

If the total number of such letters reaches 48, Brady would have to announce a vote – although more than 150 would need to vote against May to formally topple her.

While all eyes have been on the cabinet’s reaction to the draft deal, it has also been met with expressions of serious concern among key member states, including France, which was expected to demand further concessions.

Brussels was expected to confirm that it would convene a special EU summit to sign off on the deal on 25 November, after EU ambassadors held their own lengthy meeting on Wednesday.

The final deal, to be put to MPs, would include the full text of the political declaration on Britain’s future trading relationship, some aspects of which have not yet been negotiated.

Cabinet ministers have only seen a seven-page outline of this political declaration, along with 585 pages setting out the withdrawal agreement – effectively the divorce terms.

Several Brexiter ministers were unhappy about the terms of the deal. One senior leaver said it was “worse than expected”, while another said: “Several people are not in a happy place.”

However, securing the support of her cabinet for now would allow May to press on with putting the agreement to MPs in a “meaningful vote”, likely to be held early next month.

The parliamentary arithmetic looks tight. The Democratic Unionist party (DUP), whose 10 votes the Conservatives rely on for their majority, rubbished the deal before it had even been published, with the party’s Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, describing it as a “punishment beating”.

The DUP have been wary of any arrangement that gives Northern Ireland a different status to the rest of the UK.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said he agreed with May that the publication of the draft withdrawal agreement and political declaration constituted “decisive progress”. The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, published a letter to the European council president, Donald Tusk, recommending the convening of a special Brexit summit later this month.

Barnier warned, however, that it would be difficult to translate the provisional agreement into a final deal given the fierce opposition in some quarters. “The path is long and it may well be difficult to guarantee an orderly withdrawal,” he said, as he called on the UK parliament to “assume its responsibility”. ”



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