May reliant on key cabinet members to back Brexit deal

Support of attorney general and Brexit secretary crucial to prime minister’s strategy

UK Brexit secretary Dominic Raab leaves 10 Downing Street on Tuesday. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Nobody at Westminster had seen the draft EU-UK withdrawal agreement on Tuesday evening as ministers were being briefed about what its rumoured 500 pages hold. Downing Street was saying nothing ahead of Wednesday's cabinet meeting and Brussels and Dublin were holding their breath.

Conservative Brexiteers didn’t wait to read the agreement before condemning it as worse than vassalage and promising to vote against it. And the DUP, their vanity bruised perhaps by Theresa May’s decision not to brief them ahead of her own ministers, signalled that they too were rejecting the deal before reading it.

The noises off will complicate the British prime minister's efforts to persuade cabinet Brexiteers to back the draft agreement as she points to European Union concessions over the Border backstop. The opinion of attorney general Geoffrey Cox will be crucial in convincing other Eurosceptic ministers that the deal offers a plausible route out of the backstop for Britain.

Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, a robust Brexiteer who has adopted an aggressive approach towards the backstop and sought to call Dublin's bluff on the issue, is the other key voice in cabinet. If he cannot accept the deal and resigns instead, other Brexiteer ministers are likely to follow suit.


If he backs the deal, his support could help to limit the size of the Conservative backbench rebellion against it. But even before the cabinet makes its decision on Wednesday, the parliamentary arithmetic is daunting.


Even if the Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG) musters fewer than half the Conservative MPs who have pledged to oppose May’s plans, it will deliver at least 20 votes against the deal. Jo Johnson’s call to arms as he resigned as transport minister has galvanised pro-EU Conservatives opposed to the prime minister’s deal so that at least six of them could vote against it.

If the DUP's 10 MPs join the Scottish Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru in voting No, the fate of the deal will depend on Labour votes. Labour's official position will almost certainly be to oppose the deal and most of its MPs will obey the whip.

Pro-European MPs opposed to Jeremy Corbyn's leadership will not support May's deal as long as there is hope that a second referendum could reverse Brexit. Even pro-Brexit MP Kate Hoey has expressed doubts about the deal on account of the backstop. The Labour MPs most likely to back the deal are moderates representing constituencies that backed Brexit in 2016 but there are simply not enough of them to make up for the likely size of the Conservative rebellion and the opposition of the DUP.

The government will exert enormous pressure on MPs to back the deal, enlisting the support of business groups and warning of the catastrophic consequences of leaving the EU without a deal. If parliament rejects the deal, May will probably have to resign as prime minister, adding the drama of a Conservative leadership election to the chaos of a political crisis before Christmas.