May faces party revolt after winning cabinet backing for Brexit deal

Protocol on Northern Ireland provides backstop guarantee that will safeguard a soft border

British prime minister Theresa May says that she believes the current draft Brexit agreement is the best that could be negotiated. Video: Reuters

 

Theresa May faces a revolt within her party and a possible leadership challenge after she won her cabinet’s backing for a draft withdrawal agreement with the EU.

Ministers backed the deal 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.

The 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.

Britain will not be able to end the backstop unilaterally, and its governance will fall under the same structure as the rest of the withdrawal agreement, with an arbitration panel made up of two representatives from Britain, two from the EU and one independent member.

No confidence

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. 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.

Mrs May acknowledged that she faced a struggle in seeking parliamentary approval for the deal, but she insisted that it represented the best available option.

“I know that there will be difficult days ahead. This is a decision which will come under intense scrutiny, and that is entirely as it should be and entirely understandable.

“But the choice was this deal, which enables us to take back control and to build a brighter future for our country, or going back to square one with more division, more uncertainty and a failure to deliver on the referendum.”

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”.

‘Bulletproof’

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”.

Ministers and officials in Dublin had maintained a strict silence all day on the terms of the agreement until Mrs May had secured the agreement of her cabinet.

However, on Wednesday night Government sources were delighted with the outcome, while Fine Gael figures believed that the outcome would enhance Mr Varadkar’s standing politically, with talk of an early election again surfacing in Leinster House.

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