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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

British cabinet backs Theresa May’s Brexit plan

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative in the Brexit negotiations, welcomed the move

British prime minister Theresa May delivers a Brexit statement at Downing Street. Getty
British prime minister Theresa May delivers a Brexit statement at Downing Street. Getty

British prime minister Theresa May said on Wednesday that cabinet had backed her Brexit plan, adding it was in the national interest but that there would be difficult days ahead.

“The collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration,” Mrs May said outside her Downing Street residence after a five-hour cabinet meeting.

“I firmly believe that the draft withdrawal agreement is the best that could be negotiated,” she said as protesters shouted anti-Brexit slogans from the end of the street.

European Union Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier says the draft deal accepted by Britain is a decisive step in the talks and is signalling that EU leaders can convene a summit soon to endorse it.

Mr Barnier told reporters on Wednesday night that “this accord represents a decisive step toward concluding this negotiation.”

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He added: “I consider that we have achieved ‘decisive progress’,” the announcement that EU leaders have been awaiting from him to call a summit.

Mr Barnier said the deal would prevent the return of a hard border on Ireland by allowing the whole United Kingdom to remain within a customs union.

“We have now found a solution, along with the UK, to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland,” he told reporters, adding this “backstop” would only be used if the two sides fail to reach a broader agreed within a 21-month transition.

“If we are not ready by July 2020, we could jointly decide to extend the transition to provide for more time. Only if, and the end of transition extended or not, we are still not there with the future agreement would the backstop decision agreed today kick in.”

Mr Barnier didn’t directly address the summit or its possible date, although Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has said that a leaders’ meeting is pencilled in for November 25.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative in the Brexit negotiations, welcomed the move, saying that “while I hope one day the UK will return, in the meantime this agreement will make a #Brexit possible, while maintaining a close relationship between the EU and UK, a protection of citizens’ rights and the avoidance of a hard Irish border.”

The European Parliament on welcomed progress on the draft agreement reached by negotiators.

“It is encouraging to see that we are moving towards a fair deal that should ensure an orderly withdrawal, including a backstop guaranteeing that there will be no hardening of the Northern Irish/Irish border,” the EU legislature’s Brexit steering group said in a statement.

“This deal is a milestone towards a credible and sustainable future relationship between the EU and the UK.”

The draft agreement, which runs to 585 pages and was released on Wednesday night, says that the UK can ask for an extension of the transition period at any time before July 1, 2020 up to a date yet to specified.

It also says that the United Kingdom will commit to avoiding a hard border, including physical infrastructure or related checks and controls in Northern Ireland.

Mrs May spent Wednesday evening meeting fellow party leaders in the House of Commons, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party, whose MPs in Parliament sustain the minority Conservative government.

Ms Foster sent a frank tweet late on Wednesday which suggests that her party is unlikely to back the agreement:

Internal opposition within the Conservative party was quick to emerge with Jacob Rees-Mogg, the head of the European Research Group of MPs which supports a ‘Hard Brexit’, has already written a letter outlining why the deal should be voted down.

He wrote that the draft agreement will involve giving the EU £39bn and getting “little or nothing in return”. And he says the agreement will end up with Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile Beth Rigby of Sky News has tweeted that the decision to back the bill in Cabinet was very tight.

Another political reporter, Katy Balls of The Spectator named eight Cabinet MPs who voted against the agreement: Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, Gavin Williamson, Penny Mourdaunt, Liam Fox.

Harry Cole of The Sun newspaper pointed out that no Cabinet ministers resigned immediately after the Chequers agreement was made public:

Within two days of the announcement, foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit secretary David Davies had quit.

The Financial Times political correspondent Laura Hughes said that pensions secretary Esther McVey, a keen Brexiteer, was close to quitting:

Heather Stewart, the political editor of The Guardian, said that it appeared there may a resignation on the horizon: