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‘Frustrated and angry’ MPs put PM on the brink over Brexit draft

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Theresa May has won the approval of her ministers for her Brexit agreement, but there are growing rumblings of discontent despite what she has hailed as a “decisive step forward”.

The Prime Minister’s top team signed off on the draft text following a marathon five-hour cabinet meeting, in what represents a breakthrough in the exit process two-and-a-half years on from the referendum.

But Sky News has been told as many as 10 ministers spoke out about what was on offer and made their misgivings known.

Sky sources said the gathering was “very split”, with Mrs May getting the agreement through on a majority rather than with unanimous backing.

Sky’s deputy political editor Beth Rigby characterised the situation as “very, very shaky ground” for the PM.

Despite the undoubted progress, there is clear unease among Mrs May’s party over the agreement.

What is unclear at this stage is if this will solidify into resignations and a push to get rid of her.

The text of the withdrawal agreement, which runs to 585 pages, was published shortly after the PM finished speaking.

As Westminster pours over and digests the small print the scale of the opposition to it will crystallise.

Conor Burns, an ally of former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, put the PM on notice that the febrile atmosphere among backbenchers was bordering on mutinous.

He told Sky News: “I have consistently said we don’t want to change the PM, we want to change the policy of the prime minister.

“However there comes a point where if the prime minister is insistent that she will not change the policy, then the only way to change the policy is to change the personnel.”

He said Tory colleagues in the European Research Group of eurosceptic MPs are “frustrated and angry”, but they remain hopeful that the PM can be “prevailed upon to think again”.

Fellow Conservative MP Mark Francois told Sky News he thinks there is “mathematically no way” Mrs May will get the agreement through the Commons.

On the prospect of a flurry of letters calling for a no-confidence vote, he said: “A lot of colleagues are very unhappy with this deal. I’d rule nothing out.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the ERG, has written to Tory MPs and called on them not to back the plan, which he said would see Britain “hand over £39bn to the EU for little or nothing in return”.

He said the deal is “unacceptable to unionists”, will “lock us into an EU customs union and EU laws”, and is “profoundly undemocratic”.

Addressing the nation outside 10 Downing Street following the five-hour cabinet meeting, the PM said: “This is a decisive step which enables us to move on and finalise the deal in the days ahead.

“These decisions were not taken lightly but I believe it is a decision that is firmly in the national interest.”

Mrs May concluded: “I firmly believe, with my head and my heart, that this is a decision which is in the best interests of the United Kingdom.”

EU negotiator Michel Barnier echoed the PM, saying the draft agreement represented a “decisive and crucial step in concluding these negotiations”.

He added that “we have reached a crucial stage, an important moment in this extraordinary negotiation” but “the path is still long and may well be difficult” to achieving an orderly withdrawal and an “ambitious and sustainable partnership”.

Mr Barnier refused to be drawn on what would happen if parliament rejected the agreement, saying: “The British discussion is very stimulating but I won’t make any comments.

“Mrs May said this is the best possible agreement in the current circumstances.”

Wednesday’s developments set the stage for a special summit of EU leaders in Brussels – most likely on 25 November – where they will approve the agreement.

Attention will then turn to parliament, with MPs voting on the withdrawal agreement sometime before Christmas.

Arlene Foster, whose DUP backs Mrs May’s minority government in key votes, has warned her there will be “consequences” if the agreement treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.

She had talks with the PM in Downing Street on Wednesday evening.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he thinks – based on what has emerged so far – that it is “not a deal that serves the interests of the whole country”.

He added that the party would judge the agreement against its “six tests” and vote accordingly.

On Twitter, he wrote: “This is a bad deal which isn’t in the interests of the whole country.”

While many elements of the withdrawal agreement have been in place for a while – a transition period before Brexit takes full effect and the need for Britain to pay a “divorce bill” of around £39bn – the Irish border has been the main sticking point.

In particular, what form the “backstop” – an insurance policy designed to avoid a return to a hard border – has been an obstacle.

The draft agreement envisages a decision in July 2020 on what would be required to ensure the border stays open in the event a new trade deal between Britain and the EU is not finalised by the end of the transition period.

Britain will either have to extend the transition period or go into a customs arrangement that would cover the whole of the UK.

Under this latter arrangement, Northern Ireland would be aligned more closely with EU rules and standards.

Any changes to this – or a move to terminate it altogether – would have to be agreed jointly between London and Brussels.

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar praised Mrs May for “honouring her promise” to avoid a hard border.

“No international negotiation gives one side everything it wants,” he said.

“For us the very notion of Brexit is unwelcome and brings adverse consequences.

“At the same time I want to acknowledge that these negotiations have been very tough and a difficult experience for everyone involved and, with this in mind, I want to acknowledge Prime Minister May’s integrity in honouring her promise to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, and her commitment of avoiding a hard border.

“She has been true to her word.”

(c) Sky News 2018: ‘Frustrated and angry’ MPs put PM on the brink over Brexit draft