Theresa May urges ministers to act in national interest as cabinet meets over Brexit deal

 Theresa May speaking during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons

THERESA May has urged cabinet ministers to act in the national interest and support a Brexit deal which takes the UK "significantly closer" to delivering the result of the referendum.

The Prime Minister is having a crunch showdown with Brexit-backing ministers this afternoon as she seeks to persuade her senior team to back a draft deal on the UK's withdrawal from the European Union.

Tensions over the proposed agreement were heightened by reports that a senior Brussels negotiator has said the deal will mean the UK aligns its rules with Europe, while the EU "will retain all the controls".

At Prime Minister's Questions today, Mrs May told MPs: "The cabinet will decide on the next steps in the national interest.

"I am confident that this takes us significantly closer to delivering what the British people voted for in the referendum.

"We will take back control of our borders, our laws and our money, leave the Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agricultural Policy while protecting jobs, security and the integrity of our United Kingdom."

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the draft deal could provide the basis for a summit of EU leaders by the end of the month, potentially on November 25.

"It is yet to be agreed by the UK Government and they will discuss it this afternoon, and it is yet to be agreed by the European Council, and we may be in a position to have an emergency European Council meeting before the end of the month to do exactly that," he said.

Mr Varadkar said he was confident the proposed deal would not negatively impact on the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the government plans to brief all the opposition party leaders and their teams this evening if it is in a position to publish the text.

He added that the Irish government had arranged to have a briefing with Northern Ireland parties tomorrow morning and he recognised this was a "difficult time" for the unionist community.

"I know many of them may be feeling vulnerable, many of them may be feeling isolated and many of them may be quite worried about what may be agreed in the coming days," he said.

"I want to say to them that the Good Friday Agreement will be protected and that includes a recognition that we respect the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and that we respect the principle of consent that there can be no change of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland unless a majority of people in Northern Ireland say so.

"We're very happy to have that written into any agreement giving them that legal guarantee."

Amid feverish speculation about possible Cabinet resignations, Leave-backing Conservatives including Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg called on ministers to reject the proposed agreement, which they fear could lock Britain in the EU's customs union indefinitely, blocking its ability to strike new trade deals elsewhere.

DUP leader Arlene Foster headed for London with a warning that she would not back a deal which leaves Northern Ireland "adrift in the future".

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said: "What we've heard and seen of the deal, it is something which we would absolutely oppose."

Theresa May and DUP leader Arlene Foster

A leaked diplomatic note obtained by The Times suggested that Sabine Weyand - deputy to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier - told ambassadors the UK "would have to swallow a link between access to products and fisheries in future agreements" and it also indicated that close customs alignment should remain indefinitely.

According to the note, Ms Weyand said: "We should be in the best negotiation position for the future relationship. This requires the customs union as the basis of the future relationship.

"They must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls. They apply the same rules. UK wants a lot more from future relationship, so EU retains its leverage."

The draft agreement is understood to involve the UK remaining in a customs union and committing to a "level playing field" on EU rules in areas like environmental and workplace protections during a backstop period after Brexit.

In an apparent response to Ms Weyand's comments, the Prime Minister said: "I am aware of the concerns that there are, that we don't want to be in a position where the European Union would find it comfortable to keep the UK in the backstop permanently.

"That's why any backstop has to be temporary."

Cartoonist Ian Knox's take on Theresa May's approach to the Brexit negotiations

The "backstop" is intended as a fallback arrangement to avoid a hard border in Ireland unless a wider trade agreement can resolve the issue.

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Brussels is understood to have dropped its demand for Northern Ireland alone to remain within the EU customs area until a new trade deal is implemented, but it could be subject to a different regulatory regime.

The Guardian reported that an independent arbitration committee will judge when the backstop could be terminated, with a review six months before the end of the separate transition period in December 2020.

At Westminster, speculation over possible resignations focused on Brexit-backing ministers such as Penny Mordaunt, Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey.

Sources close to Brexiteer ministers played down the prospect of walkouts, saying "don't expect fireworks today".

Mrs Leadsom told ITV's Good Morning Britain she had had "a good conversation" with the Prime Minister and was "extremely optimistic that we'll have a good deal", while Ms Mordaunt is understood to be still waiting for more information about the proposals.

Former Tory leader Lord Hague warned Brexiteers that if they did not accept Mrs May's deal, Britain might not leave the EU.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If you are those sceptics, the ardent Brexiteers, what you have to really worry about here is that if you don't take this opportunity to leave the EU, to get Brexit over the line, you might never leave at all."

Former Brexit secretary David Davis urged his former Cabinet colleagues to "say no to this capitulation", while Mr Johnson said they should "chuck it out", warning that the proposals made a "nonsense of Brexit".

Brexit-backing Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said: "This isn't Brexit, it's not even close to Brexit.

"If it were darts, it's not missing the board, this is not even the right wall."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn warned in Prime Minister's Questions that Britain will be left in an "indefinite halfway house" by Theresa May's Brexit deal.

 Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May clashed in the House of Commons

He hit out at two years of "bungled" negotiations by the government and described the draft agreement as a "failure in its own terms", claiming it would not deliver a Brexit for the whole country and breaches the Prime Minister's red lines.

He also pressed Mrs May to confirm if it would be the "sovereign right" of the UK Parliament to unilaterally withdraw from an Irish border backstop arrangement, a point the PM did not answer directly in her reply.

After further criticism of her Brexit approach, Mrs May maintained the government would deliver Brexit and the UK will leave the EU on March 29 next year.

Concluding the leaders' exchanges, Mr Corbyn told the Commons: "This government has spent two years negotiating a bad deal that will leave the country in an indefinite halfway house without a real say, yet they think they can impose a false choice on Parliament between a half-baked deal and no deal when a sensible alternative plan could bring together Parliament and the country.

"Even Conservative MPs say the Prime Minister is offering a choice between the worst of all worlds and a catastrophic series of consequences.

"When will the Prime Minister recognise that neither of these options is acceptable?"

Mrs May hit out at Labour's economic plans before adding: "We will not rerun the referendum, we will not renege on the decision of the British people, we will leave the customs union, we will leave the Common Fisheries Policy, we will leave the Common Agricultural Policy and we will take back control of our money, laws and borders.

"We will deliver Brexit and the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on March 29 2019."

Earlier, Mr Corbyn sought to criticise reported details of the Brexit agreement and told MPs: "It doesn't deliver a Brexit for the whole country... it breaches the Prime Minister's own red lines, it doesn't deliver a strong economic deal that supports jobs and industry, and we know they haven't prepared seriously for no deal."

Mrs May said Mr Corbyn was "wrong" in his description and accused Labour of seeking to "frustrate" Brexit.

She told the Commons: "Time and time again he has stood up in this House and complained and said that the Government isn't making progress, that the Government isn't anywhere close to a deal.

"Now when we're making progress and close to a deal he's complaining about that.

"I think what that clearly shows is that he and the Labour Party have only one intention: that is to frustrate Brexit and betray the vote of the British people."

After Mr Corbyn asked if the UK can unilaterally withdraw from any backstop, Mrs May said: "There needs to be a backstop as an insurance policy but neither side actually wants us to be in that backstop because we want to bring the future relationship into place at the end of December 2020.

"I am aware of the concerns that there are, that we don't want to be in a position where the European Union would find it comfortable to keep the UK in the backstop permanently," she told MPs.

"That's why any backstop has to be temporary."

Mr Corbyn replied: "I think that non-answer has confirmed Parliament won't have that sovereign right."

He went on to criticise Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab's "woeful ignorance" following his recent comments about not previously having understood the full extent of Dover-Calais trade.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford used his two questions to accuse the Government of playing "dirty tricks" to prevent MPs from having a meaningful vote on her Brexit deal.

Mrs May dismissed the charge, telling the Commons that she had been clear that "there will be a meaningful vote in this House".


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