UK Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain, on November 14 2018. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE
UK Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain, on November 14 2018. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE

London — UK Prime Minister Theresa May is fighting for her political life as a growing revolt from within her own party threatens to derail her Brexit plans and force the UK out of the EU with no deal.

At least two senior ministers are said to be considering whether to quit, while scores of Conservative members of parliament are lining up to vote against the accord her cabinet grudgingly agreed to. There are even reports that a co-ordinated plot to oust May as UK leader is gathering pace.

While business and finance leaders are pleased that May has finally secured an agreement, their relief could be short-lived.  The prime minister’s own team believes that the next few days will be the most perilous she’s encountered since becoming prime minister in the aftermath of the referendum vote to leave the EU in 2016.

In the two years since, she’s battled her party and the bloc’s 27 other countries to reach a fragile agreement on the terms of Brexit. On Wednesday, it was time for May finally to push her divided cabinet to sign up to the 585-page divorce deal. Next she must persuade a rebellious parliament to follow suit and back her plan.

If politicians refuse to endorse the deal, when it comes to a vote in the next few weeks, they risk crashing the UK out of the bloc without a deal, or torpedo-ing Brexit altogether, she said.

“The choice before us is clear,” May told reporters after a stormy cabinet meeting broke up after five hours. “This deal, which delivers on the vote of the 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 emerged from the session late on Wednesday to deliver her sober assessment, after a fraught meeting with her senior team.

Reduced to tears

Under the terms of the deal, the UK will enjoy a 21-month transition phase after Brexit takes place next March. During this period, nothing will change, and businesses can carry on operating as now

Several people with knowledge of the matter said two cabinet ministers were reduced to tears during the meeting, which dragged on past its expected three-hour duration. Pensions secretary Esther McVey is said to have demanded a formal vote among cabinet ministers on whether to accept or reject the plan. She was over-ruled by May’s officials and the government’s chief whip, and remained angry at the outcome, people familiar with the matter said.

McVey, and fellow cabinet ministers, including Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt, have been weighing up whether they can stay in May’s government to see through the proposed terms of Brexit. Several people with knowledge of the matter believe it is still possible that at least one of them will quit in the days ahead.

One key issue has set these pro-Brexit ministers at odds with May: the plan for avoiding customs checks at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. May’s critics say this will keep the country in a potentially open-ended customs union with the EU. That’s unacceptable to Tory euro-sceptics, who want the country to be free from EU rules so it can strike trade deals around the world.

Under the terms of the deal, the UK will enjoy a 21-month transition phase after Brexit takes place next March. During this period, nothing will change, and businesses can carry on operating as now. To the dismay of pro-Brexit Tories, May’s deal contains the option of extending this transition period — with no currently agreed end date to that extension. This, too, is designed to help avoid the need for customs checks at the Irish border.

Bigger risk to come

Even if, as May’s team say, the backstop isn’t required, the outline agreement for the future trade relationship between the UK and the EU still suggests that deep ties will continue, keeping the country too close for many Tories’ comfort to the bloc’s single market and customs union.

While May could probably survive the loss of a few more ministers, she knows the bigger risk is still to come. She faces an onslaught from rank and file, euro-sceptic Tories in parliament after their leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said he couldn’t support her deal and urged his colleagues to reject it.

Some of Rees-Mogg’s allies are also said to be ready to send in formal letters demanding a vote of no confidence in May as their party leader, and prime minister, according to the BBC. Rees-Mogg said in an ITV interview late on Wednesday that he hasn’t yet submitted a letter and that, until now, he’s disagreed with the policy rather than with May herself.

‘Their responsibility’

“There comes a point at which the individual and the policy are so inextricably interlinked that the argument ceases to have any validity. We are coming very close to that point,” Rees-Mogg said, adding: “Let’s see what the prime minister says in her statement tomorrow.”

If she survives for long enough, the EU is lining up a special summit of leaders to sign off the deal on November 25. Speaking in Brussels shortly after the draft agreement was published, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier hailed the achievement and said they had been “extraordinary” negotiations.

He side-stepped the question of whether this was a “take it or leave it” offer to the UK but sent an explicit warning to British lawmakers who now must approve the deal. “Everybody on both sides has to take their responsibility.” 

On Thursday, May will make a statement to explain her deal to parliament for the first time. Then, probably, at some point in December, the House of Commons will be asked to vote finally on whether to accept it or not.

Bloomberg