Theresa May is facing a crunch showdown with Brexit-backing ministers as she seeks to persuade her Cabinet to back a draft deal on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Tensions over the proposed agreement were heightened by reports that a senior Brussels negotiator has said the deal will mean the UK aligns its rules with Europe, while the EU “will retain all the controls”.
Amid feverish speculation about possible Cabinet resignations, Leave-backing Conservatives including Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg called on ministers to reject the proposed agreement, which they fear could lock Britain in the EU’s customs union indefinitely, blocking its ability to strike new trade deals elsewhere.
And DUP leader Arlene Foster headed for London with a warning that she would not back a deal which leaves Northern Ireland “adrift in the future”.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, chief whip of the party which props up Mrs May’s minority administration in the Commons, warned that the deal “has the potential to lead to the break-up of the UK”, adding: “That is not something we can support.”
A leaked diplomatic note obtained by The Times suggested that Sabine Weyand – deputy to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier – had told ambassadors that the UK “would have to swallow a link between access to products and fisheries in future agreements”.
According to the note, Ms Weyand said: “We should be in the best negotiation position for the future relationship. This requires the customs union as the basis of the future relationship.
“They must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls. They apply the same rules. UK wants a lot more from future relationship, so EU retains its leverage.”
There was no immediate response to the reports from Number 10, which has remained tight-lipped on the details of the draft agreement, understood to involve the UK remaining in a customs union and committing to a “level playing field” on EU rules in areas like environmental and workplace protections during a backstop period after Brexit.
Brussels is understood to have dropped its demand for Northern Ireland to remain within the EU customs area until a new trade deal is implemented, but the province could be subject to a different regulatory regime.
The Guardian reported that an independent arbitration committee will judge when the backstop could be terminated, with a review six months ahead of the end of the separate transition period in December 2020.
At Westminster, speculation over possible resignations focused on Brexit-backing ministers such as Penny Mordaunt, Andrea Leadsom or Esther McVey.
But The Sun reported that five key members of Cabinet – Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Geoffrey Cox – were expected to back the deal.
Sources close to Brexiteer ministers played down the prospect of walkouts, with Mrs Leadsom telling ITV’s Good Morning Britain she had had “a good conversation” with the Prime Minister and was “extremely optimistic that we’ll have a good deal”.
Former Tory leader Lord Hague warned Brexiteers that if they did not accept Mrs May’s deal, Britain might not leave the EU.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “If you are those sceptics, the ardent Brexiteers, what you have to really worry about here is that if you don’t take this opportunity to leave the EU, to get Brexit over the line, you might never leave at all…
“It would probably mean a different government, incidentally, and it would mean taking the next year over having another referendum that might not resolve matters, but Brexit might never happen at all.”
Ms Mordaunt was among ministers attending Downing Street on Wednesday morning for what are understood to be one-on-one meetings with Mrs May ahead of the 2pm emergency meeting of the Cabinet.
Before that Mrs May will face the House of Commons for what is likely to be one of her toughest ever sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions.
Also seen entering Number 10 was former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, a leading advocate of a “hard” Brexit.
And reports suggest that key business leaders were also being invited into Downing Street as part of a massive drive by the Prime Minister to win support for her proposals before a Commons vote in early December.
Juergen Maier, UK chief executive of German engineering firm Siemens, told Today: “My gut feeling is that we need to get behind it and we need to make this deal work because what we need is certainty.”
— Michael Fabricant (@Mike_Fabricant) November 14, 2018
The announcement that a draft text had been agreed by officials was met with open hostility from Tory Brexiteers and scepticism from Remain supporters.
Normally loyal backbencher Michael Fabricant described Ms Weyand’s reported comments as “very worrying to those who want Brexit to mean Brexit”.
Former Brexit secretary David Davis urged his former Cabinet colleagues to “say No to this capitulation”, while Boris Johnson said they should “chuck it out”, warning that the proposals made a “nonsense of Brexit”.
Mr Rees-Mogg, chairman of the influential European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs, said he had not called for a no confidence vote in Mrs May, “but there comes a point at which the policy and the individual become so intimately connected that it will be very hard to carry on supporting this policy”.
Asked if he would be writing a letter to the Tory backbench 1922 Committee about Mrs May’s position, he said: “Not in the next 24 hours.”
This is the moment of truth. This is the fork in the road. Do we pursue a future as an independent nation or accept EU domination, imprisonment in the customs union and 2nd class status. Cabinet and all Conservative MPs should stand up, be counted and say no to this capitulation.
— David Davis (@DavidDavisMP) November 13, 2018
Mr Duncan Smith suggested Mrs May’s administration could collapse over the deal, cautioning: “If the Cabinet agrees it, the party certainly won’t.”
Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage denounced the plan as “the worst deal in history”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would vote against the deal if it failed to meet its tests.
“From what we know of the shambolic handling of these negotiations, this is unlikely to be a good deal for the country,” he said.
Shadow cabinet colleague Rebecca Long-Bailey echoed her leader’s position in a Today interview, pointing out that Labour is looking for permanent membership of the customs union.
Pressed five times on whether Brexit could be stopped, Ms Long-Bailey replied: “Of course it could… But that is a very, very hypothetical question looking into the future.”
In a speech in London, former prime minister Tony Blair will lash out at the “abject refusal of the Labour leadership to lead the country out of the Brexit nightmare”.