London — British Prime Minister Theresa May won the support of her cabinet on Wednesday for a draft divorce deal with the European Union that has put both Brexit and her leadership at stake.
May emerged from a five-hour meeting with ministers that had sent the value of the pound gyrating to announce she had full backing to move ahead with her Brexit 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.
But the embattled leader conceded that she could face even stronger resistance when she takes the text to parliament for approval next month.
Rumours of cabinet resignations and a plot by eurosceptic MPs in May’s own party to unseat her saw the pound plunge 1% in a wild hour of swings.
'Difficult days ahead'
May said she engaged in an “impassioned debate” with her ministers — and that there “will be difficult days ahead”.
“This is a decision that will come under intense scrutiny and that is entirely as it should be and entirely understandable,” she said in reference to the impending parliament vote.
The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is to give a statement later following May’s announcement.
The framework agreement announced on Tuesday capped a year-and-a-half of negotiations aimed at unwinding nearly 46 years of British EU membership.
Suffering economic uncertainty in the wake of the global financial crisis and fearing an influx of migrants, Britons voted by a 52-48 margin in June 2016 to break from Brussels.
Britain and the EU are now set to hold a Brexit summit on November 25.
Appearing before the House of Commons earlier Wednesday, May confronted the anger of both those who want a cleaner break with Brussels and those who think Brexit is a disaster.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party who is seeking early elections, called the entire negotiations process “shambolic”.
“This government spent two years negotiating a bad deal that will leave the country in an indefinite half-way house,” he said.
And Conservative Party MP Peter Bone, a leading eurosceptic, accused May of “not delivering the Brexit people voted for”.
“Today you will lose the support of many Conservative MPs and millions of voters,” he warned the British leader.
Angry Brexit supporters and critics rallied outside May’s office in Downing Street as she tried to get her disgruntled ministers to line up behind the deal.
“It sells out the country completely. We will be a vassal state of the EU,” said Lucy Harris, who founded the Leavers of London group.
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 briefed about the deal by May late on Wednesday, warning that “there will be consequences” if the leaks were true.
An EU official said that the final deal includes a “backstop” in which the entire UK will remain in a customs arrangement with the EU.
Northern Ireland would have special status under the proposals, meaning that some checks may be required between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country.
The reported arrangement did not go 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.
The talks were stuck for months on how to avoid border checks between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, if and until London strikes a new trade deal with Brussels.
The deal reportedly allows for a review mechanism that Britain could use to try to leave the backstop arrangement — a key demand of Conservative eurosceptics.
Former Tory party leader William Hague warned Brexiteers that they could sabotage the whole process if they failed to back May’s plan.
“If they vote down a deal because they are not happy with the details, the consequences may be that Brexit never happens,” he said on the radio.
The Evening Standard countered with a front page that mocked May’s oft-repeated phrase about Britain taking back control of its destiny, declaring: “EU takes back control.”