Brexit backfires: British PM Theresa May battles for survival as a string of ministers quit

Shailesh Vara, a Northern Ireland minister, became the first member of the government to quit over the deal as May began trying to sell the draft accord to parliament.

Published: 15th November 2018 03:04 PM  |   Last Updated: 15th November 2018 07:07 PM   |  A+A-

Britain's Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. (Photo | AP)

By AFP

LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May battled for political survival on Thursday as she tried to defend her draft Brexit deal before a hostile parliament after a string of ministers quit.

May insisted that her proposed EU withdrawal agreement was the best deal Britain could hope to strike when it leaves the European Union on March 29, warning that the only alternatives were leaving with no deal or not leaving at all.

But members of parliament on all sides told her that there was no way it could pass their approval, with arch-Brexiteers and EU loyalists alike insisting it was already sunk. Amid the political turmoil, the pound plunged on currency markets.

May went into battle after Dominic Raab resigned as the Brexit secretary over the draft deal, while a second cabinet minister and two junior government ministers also walked out. She faced a barrage of exceptionally hostile questions from MPs -- not only from the opposition but from her own Conservative backbenchers.

READ | British PM Theresa May gets approval from cabinet on Brexit draft deal

"If we get behind a deal, we can bring our country back together and seize the opportunities that lie ahead," May told lawmakers.

"The British people want us to get this done.

"The course is clear: we can choose to leave with no deal, we can risk no Brexit at all or we can choose to unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated."

The pound sterling lost nearly one percent of its value against the dollar following Raab's resignation, wiping out gains since Tuesday as the draft agreement emerged. At 0900 GMT, the pound stood at around $1.2870, compared to $1.2992 at 2200 GMT on Wednesday.

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, left, delivers the draft withdrawal agreement to European Council President Donald Tusk during a media conference at the Europa building in Brussels on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. In a hard-won victory on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May persuaded her fractious Cabinet to back a draft divorce agreement with the European Union. (Photo | AP)

'I must resign'

EU leaders will hold an extraordinary Brexit summit on November 25. If they approve the agreement, the British parliament is scheduled to vote on it in early December.

But MPs lined up to tell her that it could not pass, from Brexit hardliners who see the deal as conceding too much to Brussels, to EU supporters who want closer ties to the bloc or a second referendum.

Raab said there would be a devastating impact on public trust in the government unless it changed course on Brexit.

Dominic Raab, the Brexit Minister who joined Theresa May's cabinet in July 2018 (Photo | AP)

"I cannot reconcile the terms of the proposed deal with the promises we made to the country in our manifesto," he said in his resignation letter.

"I must resign."

Brexit hardliner Esther McVey also quit her work and pensions secretary post.

"I cannot defend this, and I cannot vote for this deal," she said.

Suella Braverman resigned as a junior Brexit minister and Shailesh Vara quit as a junior Northern Ireland minister over the draft accord.

In parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, told May: "The government must now withdraw this half-baked deal".

"This is not the deal the country was promised," he said.

May urged to resign

May had secured her cabinet's collective approval for the agreement during a five-hour meeting on Wednesday.

But Conservative Brexiteer Mark Francois said it was "mathematically impossible" to get the deal through parliament's lower House of Commons.

Fellow Conservative Andrew Bridgen told May to step down, saying: "Now surely it's in the national interest for her to leave".

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who leads a group of anti-EU Conservatives, openly asked May why he should not seek to trigger a leadership contest.

She accepted that delivering Brexit involved difficult choices all round.

"I do not pretend that this has been a comfortable process or that either we or the EU are entirely happy," she said.

The pound plunged against the dollar and euro as Britain's business sector gave a lukewarm verdict to the proposed agreement.

At 1000 GMT, the pound was worth around $1.2784, compared with almost $1.30 late Wednesday. The euro meanwhile jumped to 88.26 pence, a gain of 1.3 percent.

No-deal risk remains

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was "very happy" that the EU and Britain had reached a draft agreement.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe warned that despite the draft, the prospect of Britain crashing out without a deal was "still on the table".

"There's no way to know if an accord will finally be agreed," he said.

Speaking in Brussels, EU President Donald Tusk said EU member states would have until Tuesday next week to examine the deal and to agree the wording of a parallel political statement setting out goals for the bloc's future relations with London.

After that, preparations will begin for an EU summit on the following Sunday to sign the deal.

"I will do everything to make this farewell the least painful possible, both for you and for us," said Tusk.

The deal covers citizens' rights, Britain's financial settlement and plans for a post-Brexit transition period during which both sides hope to reach a new trade accord.

The most controversial element is the "backstop" plan to keep Britain in a customs union with the EU until a trade deal is agreed that avoids the need for border checks with Ireland.

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