Theresa May has vowed to see the Brexit deal through and warned a political failure to support it would bring about unpredictable consequences.
In her first press conference since bringing a proposed exit deal to cabinet, Mrs May said she was committed to securing the best outcome for the UK and ruled out a second referendum.
“I believe with every fibre of my being that the course I have set out is the right one for our country and all our people,” she said.
Facing a mutiny among senior Conservative politicians, a number of whom resigned in response to the proposed deal, the prime minister said she “does not judge them harshly” and thanked them for their service.
While acknowledging some were uncomfortable with comprises made, she warned in her opening remarks: “This deal delivers what the people voted for and it is in the national interest.
“And we can only secure it if we unite behind the agreement reached in cabinet yesterday. If we do not move forward with that agreement nobody can know for sure the consequences that will follow.”
Asked on a number of occasions about her future and the possibility of a vote of confidence in her leadership following a series of high profile resignations including Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, she said her job was to deliver the best deal possible for the UK.
“Am I going to see this through? Yes,” she said.
"Nobody has produced any alternative proposal which both delivers on the referendum and also ensures there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
"And I understand some people feel uncomfortable about the details in the backstop particularly in the withdrawal agreement and I share some of those concerns. But there is another inescapable fact: there is no deal that can be agreed with the European Union that does not involve a backstop."
In response to reports that Michael Gove would take up the recently vacated Brexit Minister position, Ms May would only say that he had done good work in the area of fisheries and that she would be making a number of appointments in due course, in the wake of the departures.
The issue of a second referendum was again raised, to which the prime minister said she had taken a clear position.
“Most members of parliament recognise that they gave a vote to the British people, the British people voted and it’s up to us to deliver on that vote and not have a second referendum,” she said.
“As far as I am concerned there will not be a second referendum.”
Britain’s plans to exit the European Union were in turmoil on Thursday amid a series of senior resignations and the threat of a challenge to the leadership of Mrs May.
In the wake of the publication of a draft withdrawal agreement, Brexit-backing Tories in the European Research Group gathered for a meeting in the British parliament. A loud banging of tables could be heard from outside as the meeting of the group, chaired by staunch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Mr Rees-Mogg was to submit a letter of no confidence in Mrs May on Thursday, a spokesman for the group said. A challenge to her leadership is triggered if 48 Tories write such letters. Mrs May could be toppled if 158 of her Conservative MPs vote against her in any motion of no-confidence. A number of backbench MPs said they were writing to the chairman of the 1922 Committee seeking a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.
On Thursday morning, Mr Raab led a series of resignations from Mrs May’s cabinet a day after the publication of a draft agreement on Britain’s exit from the European Union
Conservative Brexiteers said on Wednesday night they would vote against the deal when it is put to a vote in the House of Commons, probably early next month. Adding further pressure to Mrs May, the DUP, which props up her government, has also indicated it opposes the draft deal. The party's Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said the deal was a case of "Northern Ireland being put on a platter as an object to surrender to the EU".
Speaking outside the House of Commons Mr Rees-Mogg said he was not putting himself forward as an alternative leader of the Tories, adding: “This is nothing to do with the ambition of Brexiteers. It is everything to do with the ambition of Brexit for this country.”
“This is not Brexit. It is a failure of government policy. It needs to be rejected,” he added.
That draft withdrawal agreement, running to 580 pages, seals the terms under which Britain leaves the EU. Its provisions, defining outstanding obligations and establishing a transition period in which both sides can adjust, range from dividing up the common property, securing the rights of each others’ citizens and agreeing a departure bill for the UK.
A protocol on Northern Ireland provides a backstop guarantee that will safeguard Ireland’s soft border, guarantees continued security co-operation, protects the Common Travel Area and safeguards both human rights and the 50 or so cross-Border programmes that have come out of the Belfast Agreement.
Northern Ireland will remain in the same customs territory as the rest of the UK, but will be subject to the EU customs code and to some EU regulations.
But Mrs May is facing stiff opposition and on Thursday insisted it was the best deal on the table and that the alternatives included a no-deal Brexit or no Brexit at all.
Mr Raab’s resignation was the first of a number in Mrs May’s Cabinet.
Work and pensions secretary Esther McVey and junior Brexit minister Suella Braverman quit earlier following the departure of Mr Raab and junior minister for Northern Ireland Shailesh Vara on Thursday morning. The Conservative MP Anne-Marie Trevalyan resigned as parliamentary private secretary to the education minister while Conservative MP Ranil Jayawardena has quit his post as a parliamentary private secretary in the Ministry of Justice.
Mr Raab said he believed Theresa May should stay on as Prime Minister but change course over Brexit. “I have been fighting for a good Brexit deal but the terms proposed to the Cabinet yesterday had two major and fatal flaws,” he told the BBC.
“The first is that the terms being offered by the EU threaten the integrity of the UK.
“The second is that they would lead to an indefinite, if not permanent, situation where we are locked into a regime with no say over the rules and the laws being applied, with no exit mechanism. “I think that will be damaging for the economy but devastating for public trust in our democracy.”
He said he still respected the prime minister and held her in “high esteem” adding: “I think she should continue but I do think we need to change course on Brexit.”
The departures put prime minister Theresa May’s government into turmoil after she secured a Brexit deal that was criticised by opponents, allies and mutinous members of her party.
“The deal you put before the Cabinet yesterday does not honour the result of the referendum”, Ms McVey wrote in a letter to May.
Mr Raab wrote: "I regret to say that, following the Cabinet meeting yesterday on the Brexit deal, I must resign." May's plan threatened the integrity of the United Kingdom, he said.
“I cannot reconcile the terms of the proposed deal with the promises we made to the country in our manifesto at the last election. This is, at its heart, a matter of public trust.”
European Union leaders will meet on November 25th to endorse the divorce deal. Mrs May now faces the much more perilous struggle of getting parliament to approve the deal.
Westminster was braced for further resignations, amid widespread expectations that the prime minister may face a challenge to her position from Conservative MPs submitting letters of no confidence in her leadership.
Following the Brexit Secretary’s resignation, former Ukip leader Nigel Farage tweeted: “Well done Dominic Raab, a few more and we will be rid of this duplicitous Prime Minister.
Hours earlier Shailesh Vara had quit as minister of state for Northern Ireland, saying Mrs May’s agreement, “leaves the UK in a halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign nation”.
His resignation came as European Council president Donald Tusk announced an extraordinary meeting of EU leaders in Brussels on November 25th, at which the withdrawal agreement and a political declaration on future relations will be finalised and formalised.
Later in the afternoon, Rehman Chishti, MP for Gillingham and Rainham, resigned as Conservative vice-chairman and prime ministerial trade envoy to Pakistan.
In Mr Chisti’s letter of resignation, he said he was quitting both because he cannot support the draft withdrawal agreement and because he was disappointed by the “lack of leadership” shown by the UK government in the case of Asia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy in Pakistan.
The pound plunged against both the euro and the dollar after Mr Raab resigned, fuelling a sell-off in the British currency which was already struggling to gain traction.
Ministers backed the deal on Wednesday night after a five-hour cabinet meeting which the prime minister described as impassioned, during which a number of the ministers spoke out against it.
“The choices before us were difficult, particularly in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop. But the collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration – this is a decisive step which enables us to move on and finalise the deal in the days ahead,” Mrs May said after the meeting.
In Brussels on Wednesday night, European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker said the withdrawal agreement represents "decisive progress".
In Dublin, the publication of the text was greeted by the Government as meeting all its essential requirements on the backstop, especially that it was not time-limited and it would not be possible under the terms of the treaty for the UK to unilaterally bring the backstop to an end.
Speaking at Government Buildings on Wednesday night, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it was “one of the better days in politics”.
Asked if the backstop in the draft treaty was “bulletproof” – the term he had used last December – Mr Varadkar said it was “even stronger than what we had back in December”. – Additional reporting Agencies