Ministers have been summoned to Downing Street to go through the draft of a Brexit withdrawal agreement, as Leave-supporting MPs reacted with fury to reported details of the text.
In what is a breakthrough in the Brexit process, an agreement on the terms of Britain’s EU exit has been reached at a “technical level” by negotiators in Brussels.
But Theresa May now needs to win over her top team and get them to back the proposals.
Ministers were seen coming and going on Tuesday evening, with the talks a chance for them to scrutinise the detail and for the PM to try and get them on side.
If all goes well for Mrs May, her cabinet will sign off on the agreement on Wednesday afternoon, which should then see the full details published by the government.
EU leaders would be asked to rubber stamp it, setting the stage for a parliamentary vote sometime before Christmas.
But although reaching a draft agreement with Brussels represents a key staging post in Britain’s EU exit, the road ahead looks perilous for Mrs May.
Cabinet sign-off is by no means assured – and some ministers could decide to resign rather than back a plan they are not happy with.
There is speculation that the likes of Penny Mordaunt, Esther McVey and Liam Fox could be prepared to walk out if a deal ties the UK too closely to Brussels.
Such an outcome could put Mrs May’s position in Downing Street in peril.
An indication of the battle that is now on the PM’s hands was made abundantly clear by the early reaction of Brexiteer MPs and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which supports Mrs May’s government in key votes.
In what appeared to be a concerted push to kill the draft text as quickly as possible, they expressed their anger at leaked details of the agreement carried by RTE.
According to the Irish broadcaster:
:: A “stable” text has been agreed on the issue of the Irish border
:: This involves one overall backstop – an insurance policy to avoid a hard border – in the form of a UK-wide customs arrangement, which is what Mrs May had wanted
:: But it will have deeper provisions for Northern Ireland on customs and regulations.
:: A review mechanism is understood to be in the text, although it is unclear if this will satisfy Brexit-backing MPs, who want the UK to be able to unilaterally walk away from it.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who quit the government over the PM’s Brexit approach, told Sky News: “If they [the reports] are right, this is just about as bad as it could possibly be.”
Referring Mrs May’s cabinet, he added: “I think they should have some guts and determination and man-up and woman-up and chuck it out.”
Amid speculation about potential ministerial resignations, Mr Johnson said he would “like to see some action” from them.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the European Research Group of eurosceptic Tory MPs, told Sky News the PM had “surrendered to Brussels” and claimed her plan would leave Britain as a “slave state”.
Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith warned Mrs May her days in Downing Street could be numbered if she goes ahead with what has reportedly been agreed.
It is not just Leave-supporting MPs who are unhappy.
Remain backer Jo Johnson, who quit the government last week and called for a second referendum, told a People’s Vote rally that his party would be “gravely imperilled if we are associated with this deal”.
Meanwhile, top figures in the DUP have made clear they are unhappy with what they have heard so far.
Party leader Arlene Foster put the PM on notice, saying: “I am heartened by friends of the Union on both sides of the House and across the United Kingdom who have pledged to stand with the DUP in opposing a deal which weakens the Union and hands control to Brussels rather than parliament.
“These are momentous days and the decisions being taken will have long-lasting ramifications.
“The prime minister must win the support of the cabinet and the House of Commons. Every individual vote will count.”
But chief whip Julian Smith said: “I am confident that we will get this through parliament and that we can deliver on what the prime minister committed to on delivering Brexit.”
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling urged Tory colleagues to read the official text before making a judgement.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party was likely to vote against the agreement if it is put to parliament.
“We will look at the details of what has been agreed when they are available,” he said.
“But from what we know of the shambolic handling of these negotiations, this is unlikely to be a good deal for the country.”
Despite the Downing Street announcement, neither Brussels nor Dublin confirmed an agreement had been struck.
A European Commission spokesman said it would “take stock” on Wednesday, while a spokesman for Ireland’s deputy PM Simon Coveney said the talks were at a “sensitive” juncture.
(c) Sky News 2018: Brexiteers call for cabinet to reject draft agreement