Theresa May faces the most dangerous moment of her premiership on Wednesday as she challenges her divided cabinet to back a draft Brexit treaty and attempts to face down Conservative Eurosceptics.
The historic cabinet meeting comes after negotiators in Brussels ended months of talks by agreeing Britain’s terms for leaving the EU. Mrs May now has to sell it to her cabinet and parliament.
Even before they had seen the final text, which runs to more than 400 pages, Tory Brexiters and the Democratic Unionist party, which props up Mrs May’s government, denounced the expected deal and warned that they would vote it down.
But pro-Europeans in the cabinet on Tuesday night said they were “optimistic” Mrs May could face down her critics, paving the way for a special European Council meeting on November 25 to ratify Britain’s exit terms.
Downing Street confirmed that a “draft agreement” had been reached in Brussels and that the cabinet would meet at 2pm on Wednesday. The withdrawal accord, struck more than two years after the referendum vote to end four decades of EU membership, sparked a frenzied round of political activity in London as Mrs May prepared the ground for the crucial cabinet meeting.
Ministers were summoned individually into Downing Street on Tuesday night to be briefed on the terms of the treaty, including the controversial provisions to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. Ratification of the accord would allow the UK a smooth departure from the EU on March 29, avoiding a disruptive “no deal” exit and paving the way for further negotiations on the final relationship during a 20-month transition period.
Business leaders were also being invited to Downing Street on Wednesday, as Mrs May prepared to unleash an intensive lobbying operation in support of a deal.
Mrs May hopes that some nine Eurosceptic ministers, some of whom have made known their misgivings about the prime minister’s Brexit strategy, will finally accept the need to agree a deal in spite of its flaws.
Hardline Brexiters pleaded with ministers to quit but Iain Duncan Smith, the pro-Brexit former Tory leader, acknowledged that a mutiny by Eurosceptic cabinet ministers might be limited, saying that their “spines do not yet meet their brains”.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said the deal, which would leave Britain following EU rules on issues including the environment, state aid and employment law, was “vassal state stuff” and that he would vote against it.
Meanwhile the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds was furious that Mrs May had not given him advanced sight of the agreement. “If the reports are as we are hearing, then we could not possibly vote for that,” he said.
Eurosceptic ministers have been warned by Mrs May that unless a deal is approved this month, the government would have to start actively preparing for a potentially economically disastrous “no-deal” exit.
Following news that the cabinet would meet on Wednesday, sterling surged against the dollar, trading 1.4 per cent higher on the day at $1.3032. UK stocks also rallied, with the FTSE 100 up 0.7 per cent after reversing a 0.5 per cent decline.
The draft exit treaty is understood to include a UK-wide customs backstop plan to avoid a hard border in Ireland, keeping Britain in the customs union until a final trade deal is agreed between the two sides.
Brussels agreed the proposal in a concession to London, but in exchange it is thought to have insisted that Northern Ireland remain in a “deeper” relationship with the EU on the customs and regulatory side under the backstop plan.
Officials in Brussels said a meeting of EU ambassadors is expected on Wednesday to discuss the developments, with a further meeting of EU ministers scheduled for Monday if Mrs May’s government approves the text.
In a sign of EU leaders recognition of Mrs May’s predicament, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar signalled a willingness to hand his British prime minister some wins, saying the EU had to be “generous” in talks.
While a text of the agreement is settled, negotiations could continue over coming days if political objections are raised by London or EU member states.