London | British Prime Minister Theresa May’s hopes of getting her Brexit deal through parliament – and even of clinging on to her job – suffered a body blow on Thursday with the resignation of two senior cabinet ministers, including her Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, and three other parliamentary ministers.
The resignations came just hours after Mrs May won cabinet approval for her plan. While Work & Pensions Secretary Esther McVey had been expected to quit, it was Mr Raab’s unexpected move that sent shockwaves through parliament and the currency market, as it increased the odds of Britain crashing out of the European Union without a deal on March 29 next year.
Mrs May spent hours defending the deal on the floor of Parliament on Thursday but appeared to have little to show for it with influential pro-Brexit MP Jacob Rees-Mogg throwing his weight behind a leadership spill, submitting a letter of no-confidence to the Conservative Party’s backbench committee.
Sterling lost more than 1.5 per cent of its value against the US dollar in London morning trading, although the equity and bond markets were more sanguine.
French Prime Minister Eduoard Philippe was quoted on the website of newspaper Le Figaro as saying his government would continue to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, as “nothing at this stage allows us to be sure that the agreement reached between negotiators will in the end be adopted”.
Mr Raab took to Twitter to underline his “enduring respect” for Mrs May, but his resignation will embolden parliamentarians on all sides to vote against her deal.
Mrs May lacks a parliamentary majority, and Labour has again said it won’t support her deal. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to push her into an election, and others in Labour hope that the fluid situation on the floor of parliament could end up with MPs deciding to support a second referendum.
Mr Rees-Mogg said he would not stand for leadership himself but said the party had a wealth of talent, citing fellow pro-Brexiteer Boris Johnson and Penny Mordaunt.
If 48 Conservative MPs submit a no-confidence letter to the chairman of the party’s backbench committee, a leadership spill is automatically triggered. Three other others – junior Brexit minister Suella Braverman, parliamentary aide Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Northern Ireland minister, Shailesh Vara – also resigned on Thursday.
In his resignation letter to Mrs May, Mr Raab attacked the deal for creating different regulatory regimes for Northern Ireland and the British mainland, and for restricting Britain’s ability to quit the temporary customs union with the EU that will last until a new trade agreement is signed.
“I cannot reconcile the terms of the proposed deal with the promises we made to the country in our manifesto at the last election. This is, at its heart, a matter of public trust,” he wrote.
But Mrs May stuck to her guns late on Thursday (AEDT), taking her case to parliament. She said “voting against a deal would take us all back to square one”, and urged MPs to look beyond the shortcomings of the transition period.
“What we agreed yesterday was not the final deal,” Mrs May said. “It is a draft treaty that means we will leave the EU in a smooth and orderly way on 29 March 2019 and which sets the framework for a future relationship that delivers in our national interest.”
She acknowledged that neither she nor Brussels were “entirely happy” with the ‘backstop’ provisions on Northern Ireland, which have extended into keeping Britain in a temporary customs union with the EU until at least the end of 2020.
“But while some might pretend otherwise, there is no deal which delivers the Brexit the British people voted for which does not involve this insurance policy.”
Proponents of a second referendum believe their case is getting stronger. But it probably could not be held before March 29 – meaning a hard Brexit is still in prospect unless the EU grants an extension to the withdrawal process. It also prolongs the uncertainty, and fresh battlelines will be drawn over what question it might ask. If it doesn’t result in a decision to reverse Brexit, it may do little to advance Britain from its current position.