May wins her cabinet over by pointing to grim alternatives to her proposal
Report claims 10 ministers spoke out against prime minister’s deal at cabinet meeting
Prime minister Theresa May preparing to make a statement outside 10 Downing Street on Wednesday. Photograph: Reuters/Henry Nicholls
When Theresa May emerged from 10 Downing Street after a five-hour cabinet meeting, she made no effort to disguise the stormy nature of the discussion. She said ministers had engaged in a “long, detailed and impassioned” debate about the draft withdrawal agreement and an outline political declaration on the future relationship between Britain and the EU.
“The choices before us were difficult, especially 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.”
The meeting had been expected to last about three hours, enough time for every minister to make an intervention. When it stretched first into four hours and then into five, it was clear that the cabinet was engaged in a debate that made the outcome uncertain.
Downing Street had planned for the prime minister to give a press conference on Wednesday night, but during the cabinet meeting a minister announced in the House of Commons that May would not be doing so. The decision was in response to a letter from the leaders of all opposition parties demanding that the prime minister should make a statement to the house on Thursday before taking questions from the press about the withdrawal agreement.
“Your ministerial code is clear that important statements of policy should be made to the House of Commons first and not to the press. It is entirely inappropriate for you to brief the press, through a press conference as we understand you plan to do this evening, before coming to the house to make a statement and to be questioned by elected members of parliament,” the leaders said.
Difficult to accept
May opened the cabinet meeting by acknowledging that the draft agreement included elements that some ministers would find difficult to accept. According to one report, 10 ministers spoke out against the deal, but the prime minister won her cabinet round by pointing to the grim alternatives to accepting her proposal.
“When you strip away the detail, the choice before us is clear. 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,” she said after the meeting.
“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.”
Senior government officials said later that the prime minister warned her cabinet that if it rejected the deal, parliament could reverse Brexit before Britain is scheduled to leave the EU in March next year.
While May was making her case to the cabinet, Brexiteer backbenchers were plotting her overthrow, threatening to write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee calling for a confidence vote. Once Graham Brady receives 48 letters, he will have to call such a vote, and Brexiteers believe they are close to reaching that number.
Attitude has changed
Until now the leaders of the Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG) have advised members not to seek a confidence vote, but their attitude has changed in recent days. Jacob Rees-Mogg, who suggested on Tuesday that he was approaching the point of moving against the prime minister, wrote to MPs on Wednesday night arguing against the deal.
“This will prevent us pursuing a UK trade policy based around our priorities and economy. Without the ability to regulate our own economy and form our own trade agreements we will lose out on the opportunities that Brexit affords us,”he wrote.
“This is compounded by the lack of any ability for the UK to unilaterally escape, making the UK a permanent rule-taker.For these reasons I cannot support the proposed agreement in parliament, and would hope that Conservative MPs would do likewise.”
The prime minister will make a statement to the House of Commons on Thursday morning, and take questions from MPs about the draft withdrawal agreement.
The cabinet’s decision to back the agreement means that it can be signed off at a special EU summit on November 25th, and put to a vote in parliament in early December.
Before any of that happens, however, May could face a vote of confidence in her leadership, and although her allies are confident she will survive, once the process is set in motion its outcome is impossible to predict.