EU divorce deal in peril after two UK Cabinet ministers quit

EU divorce deal in peril after two UK Cabinet ministers quit
May battles to save Brexit deal as resignations plunge U.K. government into turmoil
For more than two years, Prime Minister Theresa May has had to navigate the disunion that plagues not just the U.K. over Brexit, but also her party — even her own cabinet.

By the time she was speaking in Parliament to defend the draft deal she agreed with Brussels negotiators on the terms for Britain's exit from the European Union, there were five more resignations from among her ministers, two from her cabinet, including Dominic Raab, the minister responsible for Brexit.

Video: Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab resigns – BBC News

Brexit secretary, other U.K. ministers quit leaving Theresa Mays draft in jeopardy

A further threat to her leadership also emerged as a prominent Tory Brexiteer submitted a letter asking for a vote of no-confidence, leading to speculation it could prompt others to do the same.

Selling any deal to such a fractious crowd was always going to be a challenge for May. But it's hard to imagine how she can recover from the biggest blow so far: losing her second Brexit minister since the position was created.

"I cannot reconcile the terms of the proposed deal with the promises we made to the country in our manifesto at the last election," Raab wrote in a letter Thursday.

EU leaders are ready to meet on Nov. 25 to sign off on the divorce deal, or Withdrawal Agreement, but French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe summed up the uncertainty when he said events in London raised concerns about whether it would be ratified.

Jacob Rees-Mogg sends letter of no confidence in May

But at a press conference later in the day, May said she's not going to back down despite the challenges to her approach.

At the heart of Raabs criticism was the belief that the pursuit of a temporary customs union with the EU would be the starting point for talks on the future relationship with the bloc, severely prejudicing what Britain could achieve.

"I understand fully that there are some who are unhappy with those compromises," May said. "But this deal delivers what people voted for and it is in the national interest."

But a May ally, former interior minister Amber Rudd, told Sky News: The problem isnt the prime minister. The problem is the challenges shes got to deliver in trying to pull together this Brexit. Shes the best person to do it.

But in the unusual breakup between Great Britain and the European Union, there was the added challenge of trying to please multiple sides. Now that a draft compromise is on the table, most of those sides in Britain are up in arms.

"We're in the Brexs*it," screamed the Sun newspaper. "May's soft Brexit deal blasted by all sides."

Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to fight for her draft divorce deal with the European Union on Thursday after the resignation of her Brexit secretary and other ministers put her strategy and her job in peril.

Raab, along with Northern Ireland Minister Shailesh Vara, Work and Pensions Minister Esther McVey, Junior Brexit Minister Suella Braverman and Junior Education Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan, all resigned from May's government Thursday.

"The government is falling apart before our eyes as for a second time, the Brexit secretary has refused to back the prime minister's Brexit plan," said Jon Trickett, a member of opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn's senior team.

"Theresa May has no authority left and is clearly incapable of delivering a Brexit deal that commands even the support of her cabinet — let alone Parliament and the people of our country."

British financial regulators held a call with major banks asking for feedback on market conditions after the pound and financial stocks sank, sources said. One source said the call was a direct request from Bank of England Governor Mark Carney. The Bank of England declined to comment.

At this late stage in a negotiation process that's lasted more than two years, May had hoped an ultimatum would save her and the draft she painstakingly reached with the EU: it's either this deal, or chaos.

“Theresa May has no authority left and is clearly incapable of delivering a Brexit deal that commands even the support of her cabinet, let alone parliament and the people of our country,” said Jon Trickett, a member of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s senior team.

Both Wednesday and Thursday, May outlined the choices available: a deal "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."

Their departure, and the resignations of two junior ministers, shakes May’s divided government and her Brexit strategy, raising the prospect of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. Some lawmakers in London openly questioned whether May’s government will survive.

Surviving the grilling in Parliament on Thursday is just one part of a still fraught road to getting her way. But even that doesn't guarantee success.

In her opening statement, May paid tribute to Raab and other ministers for the work they had done on the deal. "Delivering Brexit involves difficult choices for all of us," she said.

The backstop arrangement, to come into force if a future trade deal does not prevent the return of a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland, has been the main obstacle to a deal with the bloc and agreement of her ministers.

"I do not pretend that this has been a comfortable process — or that either we or the EU are entirely happy with all of the arrangements that have been included within it."

The deal as it stands sets out the terms of the divorce, which is set to happen on March 29: the $67-billion bill, and the protection of the rights of each other's citizens once the breakup happens. It would end free movement that is possible under the current relationship.

The most controversial are provisions that would temporarily keep the United Kingdom aligned with EU rules as long as necessary to avoid border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The deal also allows for the extension of the transition period as the two sides work out a new trading arrangement. The transition period is currently set for 21 months.

The lack of enthusiasm for the deal from Brexiteer ministers means few will be willing to get out there and sell it to the public. Its not hard to see why they would be reluctant to wax lyrical about it on the Andrew Marr sofa. If agreed, the UK pays billions to the EU in a divorce bill – something Boris Johnson once suggested Brussels could go whistle over. Free trade deals look off the menu for the foreseeable as a result of a UK-wide customs union in the backstop agreement – which the UK could leave only if an independent arbitration panel consisting of five people agreed. As for taking back control, there is a continued role for the European court of justice, at least in the short to medium term.

"Voting against a deal would take us all back to Square 1," she said. "It would mean more uncertainty, more division, and a failure to deliver on the decision of the British people that we should leave the EU."

Yet Mays big problem relates not just to those around the decision-making table, but to the parliamentary party at large. As Raabs resignation demonstrated, the anger in Eurosceptic circles cannot be underestimated, and a confidence vote could finally materialise within days. Up until now, the European Research Group of Brexiteer backbenchers had insisted the problem was with the policy not with the person promoting it. That has changed, and Jacob Rees-Mogg will not rule out submitting a letter of no confidence in the near future. Theresa May is the problem, complained a member of the group.

Full-blown criticism came from all sides of a packed house. Some of the most devastating came from her own side. In a question, Brexiteer Jacob Rees Mogg threatened to pen a letter adding his voice to the call for a no-confidence vote.

Later he did submit it, according to the British Press Association, saying that May's deal "has turned out to be worse than anticipated and fails to meet the promises given to the nation by the prime minister."

Dominic Raabs resignation this morning as Brexit secretary is a near-fatal blow to Mays Brexit plan – and to her premiership. Prior to the meeting, No 10 aides privately conceded that, of all the ministers that could resign, it was Raab that they could not afford to lose. Raab helped May keep the show on the road in the aftermath of the Chequers backlash, in which the key Brexiteers David Davis and Boris Johnson quit. A pragmatic Brexiteer, Raab was a crucial hire for No 10, as the choice showed that Mays plan still had appeal to leave voters.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party "will not accept a false choice between this bad deal and no deal."

In an ominous sign for May, Nigel Dodds, an MP from the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist party (DUP), which is propping up May's government, called on MPs to vote against the deal that amounts to a "vassal state."

Read more Were the magic number of 48 to be reached, more than half of all Conservative MPs would need to say they no longer have confidence in the PM. That is not a given, but there is new thinking among Brexiteers that it could still be worth it, as the fact they could call the vote would be a display of strength. If they can show there are 48 Tory MPs who have no faith in May, it sends a message that there are 48 Tory MPs who will not vote for her deal.

Such arguments were heard on all sides of the House, strongly indicating Britain could be heading toward yet another political correction, one that the prime minister and her government may not survive.

With both the Labour Party and the DUP unhappy with the deal, an eventual vote in the Commons — if it even comes to that — could bring the entire thing down, taking May's premiership with it.

"British compromises were inevitable," Nick Timothy wrote. "But the proposal presented to cabinet is a capitulation … not only to Brussels, but to the fears of the British negotiators themselves."

With just weeks left before the Brexit date, May still managed to get the 585-page compromise past her divided cabinet on Wednesday, clearing just one of several hurdles before it can be approved.

Raab, whose resignation posed the most serious threat yet to Mays Brexit strategy, insisted he was not encouraging MPs to unseat May. He told Sky News: I think we need to support this prime minister in getting Brexit over the line and making a success of Brexit. So I dont want to be part of that sort of discussion or debate.

Even so, the threat remained that more of her cabinet members will walk in protest, jeopardizing her government. Then the resignations started, first with Vara, who argued the deal puts the U.K. in a "halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign nation."

After David Cameron announced his resignation, five Tory MPs stood for the leadership. Unlike Labour party rules, under which candidates go to a ballot of members as long as they have the support of 15% of the partys MPs, Conservative candidates are whittled down to a final two before party members have their say.

In between the two came the blow about Raab. In his letter to May, he said he was unhappy with provisions that singled out Northern Ireland, because they present a "very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom." He also wrote that leaving the U.K. in line with EU rules, even temporarily, allows the EU to hold "a veto over our ability to exit."

The ballot is based on one member, one vote, but in 2016 one of the final two candidates, Andrea Leadsom, withdrew from the race after a damaging interview with the Times about the fact that May did not have children. Her withdrawal meant May was made party leader without having been elected by members.

The most immediate threat to May and her plan remains in her own Conservative Party, where the foaming discontent quickly turned Wednesday into open rebellion.

There are two ways a contest can be triggered, most obviously if the leader of the party resigns. If they do not, 15% of Conservative MPs must write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories. With the partys current crop of 317 MPs, 48 would be needed.

Even before the angry airing in the Commons on Thursday, unhappy Tory MPs took to the airwaves and social media with expressions of disappointment and rancour — accusing May of failing to deliver the Brexit voters had envisioned.

Brexiteers challenged her Wednesday in the Commons, in letters and in the mounting likelihood of a no-confidence vote.

"I do feel that we are getting … at the point where there's going to be a confidence vote on the prime minister given the controversy around the Brexit proposals," said Tory MP Andrew Bridgen.

Downing Street appears to be hoping that the looming uncertainty from a leadership contest or a general election this far down the Brexit road might persuade just enough MPs on all sides to accept the deal and move on.

Meanwhile, a date has been set for an EU summit to consider the deal: Nov. 25. The U.K. House of Commons would then have to ratify it.

As the great unravelling continues, this is a union far more disunited over Brexit than the one it seeks to leave.

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.

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