British Prime Minister Theresa May won the support of her bitterly divided cabinet on Wednesday for a draft divorce deal with the European Union that has put both Brexit and her leadership at stake.
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May emerged from a five-hour meeting with ministers that had sent the value of the pound gyrating to announce she had the government’s “collective” backing to move ahead with the plan.
“The collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration,” May said outside her Downing Street office.
A spokesman said the meeting ended without any explicit threats of resignation and everyone unwinding with a glass of wine and some snacks.
But the embattled leader conceded that she could face even stronger resistance when she takes the 585-page text to parliament for approval next month.
Rumours of ministers quitting and a plot by eurosceptic MPs in May’s own party to unseat her saw the pound plunge one percent in a wild hour of trading that ended with the currency on the upswing.
The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the divorce was making “decisive progress” that still required “lots and lots of work”.
The blueprint agreed on Tuesday capped a year and a half of politically fraught negotiations aimed at unwinding nearly 46 years of British EU membership.
Its announcement saw May come under attack from both those backing a cleaner break with Europe and those dreading a future in which Britain strikes out on its own.
May’s government is split between the two camps — as is parliament and much of the country.
The premier said she engaged in an “impassioned debate” with her ministers — and that there “will be difficult days ahead”.
But she added: “The choice before us is clear.
“This deal, which delivers on the vote of the (2016) 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.”
May did not explain how Brexit might still not happen on March 29 — a possibility rooted on passionately by many of those who lost the 2016 vote by a 52-48 margin.
Barnier said the two sides had crucially found the right formula to avoid a “hard” border between British Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — the main sticking point in the talks.
The agreement sees the whole of Britain staying in a customs arrangement with the EU as a “backstop” if the two sides fail to reach a broader agreement within a 21-month transition.
EU Council president Donald Tusk’s office said he would give a Brexit statement on Thursday in which he could announce the date of a snap EU-UK summit the Irish aimed at finalising the deal.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he expected the 28 leaders to meet on November 25.
– ‘Shambolic’ negotiations –
Appearing before the House of Commons earlier Wednesday, May confronted the anger of lawmakers who may yet try to oust her government in the weeks to come.
Conservative Party MP Peter Bone, a leading eurosceptic, accused May of “not delivering the Brexit people voted for”.
In Boston, the town in England with the highest Brexit vote in Britain, residents agreed.
“It’s crap,” retiree Kathrine Denham, 74. “She’s reneging on everything we voted for.”
More ominously, the Northern Irish party propping up May’s government threatened to break their alliance over leaks about a special arrangement for the British province.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster said she expected to be personally briefed about the deal by May, warning that “there will be consequences” if the leaks were true.
Northern Ireland would have special status under the backstop proposals, which would align it with the European single market.
This means that some checks will be required between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country on farm products and agriculture.
The arrangement has not gone down well in Scotland, where the pro-independence and europhile government also questioned the deal.
Its nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon asked why Northern Ireland should have a special status that would effectively keep it in the European single market while Scotland should not.
Importantly, its outlines won the backing of big business, whose support is vital for May as she tries to sell the plan.
The Confederation of British Industry said the draft “moves the UK one step away from the nightmare precipice”.
The governing body for London’s City financial district said the text “provides welcome clarity and a foundation for financial services”.
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