Cabinet Ministers were invited into Downing Street last night to read the draft agreement and will convene for a special meeting at 2pm to “decide on next steps”.
Getting approval from the Cabinet will be the first in a series of perilous steps towards a deal on the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU on March 29, including a knife-edge vote of MPs expected in mid-December.
Ministers today came under immediate pressure from Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party which props up the Prime Minister’s minority Government to reject the deal and force a rethink, or failing that to resign.
One Brexiteer source urged Ministers to “look deep into their soul” and ask themselves whether the draft deal is really a good one for Britain.
But the source admitted they were not expecting resignations from the Cabinet, despite suggesting Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab was “one to watch”.
It is a moment of high danger for Mrs May although many Westminster observers feel she could lose more junior Cabinet Brexiteers such as Penny Mordaunt and Esther McVey and keep her job.
However, the resignation of Mr Raab, who has reportedly pushed for a unilateral escape route from the Irish backstop plan, could however threaten the PM’s position and potentially throw the Brexit process into chaos.
Even if the deal is approved by Cabinet, Mrs May will have to get it through the parliamentary vote, with Labour, the DUP and Tory Brexiteers and Remainers alike lining up to potentially vote it down. Chief Whip Julian Smith said Ministers would want to study the agreement carefully but said he was confident they could get it through the Commons.
“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,” the North Yorkshire MP told reporters.
“The negotiation team have been working through the night for the last few weeks and we’re hopefully on the cusp of beginning to get to the point where we are delivering on Brexit in a really practical way.”
Confirmation that a deal had been reached by officials follows months of protracted talks in Brussels.
But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn indicated his party, which could hold the key to getting a deal through Parliament, would oppose the deal alongside dozens of Tory Brexiteers, some Tory Remainers and the 10 DUP MPs.
He said: “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.
“Labour has been clear from the beginning that we need a deal to support jobs and the economy - and that guarantees standards and protections. If this deal doesn’t meet our six tests and work for the whole country, then we will vote against it.”
The last remaining sticking point to a deal was the backstop to maintain a fully open Irish border if future trade talks collapse without a deal to keep the frontier soft.
Irish broadcaster RTE reported that a “stable” text had been agreed, including one overall “backstop” in the form of a UK-wide customs arrangement – as sought by Mrs May – but with deeper provisions for Northern Ireland on customs and regulations.
A review mechanism is understood to be part of the text, but it is unclear if that would meet the demands of Tory Brexiteers who want the UK to be able to unilaterally walk away.
Theresa May faced a Brexiteer backlash tonight and claims of a ‘capitulation’ as her Cabinet began consideration of a deal with Brussels.
Number 10 confirmed a draft deal had been reached by officials negotiating in Brussels after months of protracted talks.
Ministers have been invited to Downing Street to read documents relating to the agreement before a special Cabinet meeting tomorrow.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson urged his ex-Cabinet colleagues to “chuck it out”, warning that the proposals made a “nonsense of Brexit”.
And Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the influential European Research Group of dozens of Tory MPs, said: “It is a failure of the Government’s negotiating position, it is a failure to deliver on Brexit and it is potentially dividing up the United Kingdom.”
A series of ministers were seen entering and leaving Downing Street following the Number 10 announcement.
Brexiteers lined up to condemn the deal before its details had even been officially confirmed, prompting criticism from Scarborough MP and former Conservative Minister Robert Goodwill.
Mr Johnson told the BBC: “For the first time in a thousand years, this place, this Parliament, will not have a say over the laws that govern this country. It is a quite incredible state of affairs.”
Mr Rees-Mogg told the broadcaster: “White flags have gone up all over Whitehall. It is a betrayal of the Union.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith suggested Mrs May’s administration could collapse over the deal. He warned that if reports of the deal’s contents were true, the Government was “breaking their own agreed position and will be bringing back something that is untenable”.
He added that “if the Cabinet agrees it, the party certainly won’t”.
Asked if the Government’s days were numbered, he said: “If this is the case almost certainly, yes.”
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden, wrote on Twitter last night: “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.”
Mr Goodwill told The Yorkshire Post: “People like Boris Johnson seem to be rejecting the deal even before they have had a chance to read it. If this agreement is rejected in the House of Commons then we crash out in a way that will be very damaging to businesses and jobs.”
Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the DUP which props up Mrs May’s minority administration, said that the deal as reported would leave Northern Ireland “subject to the rules and laws set in Brussels with no democratic input or any say”.
He added: “We object to that on constitutional grounds that our laws would be made in Brussels, not in Westminster or Belfast. That is the fundamental red line.”
Neither Brussels nor Dublin confirmed that a deal had been reached, despite the Number 10 announcement.
A spokesman for chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said the latest in the negotiations had been set out earlier by commission vice president Frans Timmermans, who said that while the talks were making progress “we are not there yet”.
The European Commission would “take stock” tomorrow, he added.
A spokesman for Ireland’s deputy premier Simon Coveney said that negotiations were at a “sensitive” juncture. “We are not commenting on media speculation around the withdrawal agreement,” the spokesman said yesterday. “Michel Barnier and the task force are charged with negotiating with the UK and we have been in constant communication with them throughout.”
No indication of where we're going:
The Prime Minister's deal will struggle to win approval in the Commons "because it will offer no indication of where we are heading", according to a senior Yorkshire MP.
Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central and chairman of the Commons Brexit Select Committee, wrote on Twitter that despite all the attention being given to the Northern Ireland backstop, "we still have no idea what kind of long-term economic relationship we will have with the EU".
He added: "The reason why is because the Government’s red lines, including leaving the customs union and the single market, have completely boxed it in."
He said the lack of uncertainty was "bad for investment, jobs and tax revenue". And he added: "It’s not that a different approach is not possible - it still is. It’s just that the Government has failed over two and a half years to make that choice. And that’s why their approach is bad for our future."