Two Leave-backing ministers including the man in charge of the UK’s withdrawal negotiations have sensationally quit the Cabinet in a massive blow to Theresa May’s Brexit plans.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab – who only took over in the summer after David Davis resigned in protest over the Prime Minister’s withdrawal strategy – said he “cannot in good conscience support the terms proposed for our deal with the EU”.
Esther McVey announced she was resigning as Work and Pensions Secretary as she could not defend a deal which meant the UK “handing over control to the EU”.
“Delivering Brexit involves difficult choices for all of us,” said the Prime Minister. “We do not agree on all those choices, but I respect their views.”
To laughter from opposition benches, Mrs May insisted that her deal would allow the UK to leave “in a smooth and orderly way” on March 29.
She said the deal offered a future relationship with “a breadth and depth of co-operation beyond anything the EU has agreed with any other country”.
In a swipe at her Brexit-backing critics, she said the EU would never accept any agreement which did not involve a “backstop” arrangement to ensure the Irish border remains open.
Mrs May said it would be “entirely irresponsible” for the Government to have simply torn up the backstop.
“The Brexit talks are about acting in the national interest and that means making what I believe are the right choices, not the easy choices,” she said.
“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.”
But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called on her to “withdraw this half-baked deal”.
The shock departures of Mr Raab and Ms McVey came within little more than an hour of one another, amid a furious backlash from Brexit-backing Tories to the deal given the collective approval of Mrs May’s Cabinet in a stormy five-hour meeting at 10 Downing Street on Wednesday.
Their resignations were followed by a second Brexit minister, Suella Braverman, while Anne-Marie Trevelyan announced she was quitting as an unpaid parliamentary aide in the Department for Education.
Earlier, Shailesh Vara quit as minister of state for Northern Ireland, saying Mrs May’s agreement, “leaves the UK in a halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign nation”.
The developments threaten to derail the Prime Minister’s Brexit strategy ahead of a crucial EU summit on November 25, with just over four months to go until the UK is due to leave on March 29.
Labour said the Government was “falling apart before our eyes” and the pound dropped sharply after Mr Raab’s resignation.
In his letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Raab said the deal represented a “very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom” because of provisions for Northern Ireland.
He also said he could not accept “an indefinite backstop arrangement” for the Irish border.
He said: “No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to decide to exit the arrangement.”
Ms McVey, who was promoted to the Cabinet by Mrs May in January, was reported to have been close to tears as she tried to force a vote on the Brexit deal in Wednesday’s Cabinet.
In a letter to the PM, the Tatton MP cited concerns over the future of the Union and a lack of control over money, law, borders and trade policy under a deal she felt kept the UK too close to Brussels.
“The British people have always been ahead of politicians on this issue, and it will be no good trying to pretend to them that this deal honours the result of the referendum when it is obvious to everyone that it doesn’t,” wrote Ms McVey.
“We have gone from no deal is better than a bad deal, to any deal is better than no deal.
“I cannot defend this, and I cannot vote for this deal. I could not look my constituents in the eye were I to do that.”
The resignations came as European Council president Donald Tusk announced an extraordinary meeting of EU leaders in Brussels on November 25, at which the withdrawal agreement and a political declaration on future relations is due to be finalised and formalised.
Mr Raab had been a surprise choice as Brexit Secretary when Mr Davis, along with foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit minister Steve Baker, resigned in protest at Mrs May’s Chequers plan in July.
As the UK’s ministerial point man in negotiations he made repeated trips to Brussels for talks with EU negotiator Michel Barnier as he and civil servants tried to hammer out a workable withdrawal agreement.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said the Government was “falling apart before our eyes as, for a second time, the Brexit Secretary has refused to back the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan”.
“This is the 20th minister to resign from Theresa May’s Government in her two-year premiership,” he said.
“Theresa May has no authority left and is clearly incapable of delivering a Brexit deal that commands even the support of her Cabinet, let alone Parliament and the people of our country.”
Ms Soubry added: “No PM deserves to be so badly treated. Raab signed up to her Withdrawal Agreement allowing her to make her statement after Cabinet knowing he’d resign in time for the 9am News bulletins the next morning. Shameful.”
Mrs May faces a battle to get the deal through Parliament as pro-Leave Conservative MPs – as well as some Remainers – lined up to condemn the plan, accusing her of breaking promises and leaving the UK at the mercy of Brussels.
In a resignation statement, North-West Cambridgeshire MP Mr Vara – who was promoted by Mrs May as recently as July – said: “We are a proud nation and it is a sad day when we are reduced to obeying rules made by other countries who have shown that they do not have our best interests at heart.
“We can and must do better than this. The people of the UK deserve better.”
In Brussels, Mr Tusk was handed a copy of the 585-page withdrawal agreement by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
Ministers and ambassadors of the remaining 27 EU states will work to finalise by next Tuesday the political declaration on future relations with the UK, published in outline form on Wednesday, he said.
Welcoming the UK Cabinet’s collective agreement to accept the withdrawal document, Mr Tusk said: “Of course, I do not share the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm about Brexit as such.
“Since the very beginning, we have had no doubt that Brexit is a lose-lose situation and our negotiations are only about damage control.”
He sent a message to the British people: “As much as I am sad to see you leave, I will do everything to make this farewell the least painful possible, both for you and for us.”