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‘Brexit’ Draft Deal: British Cabinet to Meet

Posted November 14, 2018 9:05 a.m. EST

LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May will hold an emergency Cabinet meeting at 2 p.m. Wednesday to discuss a draft agreement for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, a crucial and perilous step as time is running out to reach a deal.

There is an enormous amount at stake for May, for Britain and for the European Union as she tries to meet the competing demands of advocates and opponents of the withdrawal, more commonly known as Brexit.

With the Brexit deadline less than five months away, the meeting could make or break May’s political career. It should also provide the first true test of whether she can avoid a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit.

Her primary challenge is to avoid a Cabinet revolt. Even before the full details of the draft were known, hard-line Brexit advocates were already trying to persuade the full Cabinet to reject it, or even resign in protest. Either outcome would be devastating for May.

Even if the Cabinet approves the draft, there are still several steps. The deal needs the approval of the British Parliament, which is far from a certainty. The European Parliament and the bloc’s 27 other member states must also approve it.

A key sticking point is the Irish border, a contentious issue for which there is no easy solution as negotiators try to figure out a way to allow people and goods to pass through without the imposition of a hard border.

— News media coverage

The Daily Mail called it “judgment day,” and the Daily Telegraph a “moment of truth.” The Times of London, meanwhile, wrote that May had been “accused of betrayal” over her plans for Brexit.

On Wednesday, the British news media was dominated by reports of May’s draft Brexit deal and speculation about what might happen when her senior ministers meet.

But The Sun, one of the loudest advocates of Brexit, predicted there would be sound — but not too much fury — from hard-line Brexiteers within May’s Cabinet.

The tabloid reported that the most senior pro-Brexit ministers would fall in line when the Cabinet meets for what is expected to be a long, pivotal meeting.

But it believes that some resignations from less high-profile Cabinet ministers who support Brexit are possible — something that would embarrass May, though probably not wreck her leadership.

Those expected to stick by May include the influential Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab; Environment Secretary Michael Gove; Transport Secretary Chris Grayling; and the House of Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom. More recent recruits to the Brexit cause — Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Sajid Javid — are also likely to support the prime minister, The Sun’s political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, reported.

“The Sun understands that none of the key players are expected to resign today, with all grudgingly agreeing to go along with her plan at least for now,” Newton reported, although he was less confident that the development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, would remain.

The Sun reported that Mordaunt had asked May to suspend collective government responsibility when the deal comes to Parliament. That would allow ministers to vote against government policy, which Cabinet ministers normally defend.

Analysts are also watching whether Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, will resign.

— Stephen Castle

— An Irish problem

The prime minister’s Conservative Party does not have a majority in Parliament, so her government relies on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which voiced opposition to the deal even before it was made public.

The DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, made clear in her statement late Tuesday that she was not happy with the emerging deal. She was traveling to London on Wednesday.

Jeffrey Donaldson, a senior DUP lawmaker, went further, telling the BBC on Wednesday that what he had heard of the draft Brexit deal “undermines the constitutional and economic integrity” of the United Kingdom and warning that he was not afraid of precipitating a general election by opposing the plan.

The Conservatives hold 315 seats in the House of Commons, short of the 326 needed for an outright majority, and May needs the tacit support of the DUP, which has 10 seats and campaigned for Brexit (which a majority of Northern Ireland voters opposed).

The most sensitive aspect of the plan is the “backstop” to prevent physical checks on the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and Ireland, which will remain in the European Union.

From what is known of the draft, Britain would stay temporarily in a customs union with the European Union until a long-term trade deal was negotiated. But the obligations on Northern Ireland would be deeper, particularly in obeying standards laid down by the European Union’s single market, leading to increased regulatory checks on goods flowing from Britain to Northern Ireland.

That is seen as an almost existential threat by the DUP, which wants to remain part of the U.K.

For the DUP, voting against May’s deal risks precipitating a general election that could bring to power Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour Party leader. Corbyn has a history of strong ties to Sein Fein, which promotes a united Ireland.

The DUP might be less worried about the other possible outcomes of blocking May’s plan, such as a no-deal Brexit, and might conclude that this could strengthen ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. It might also calculate that another referendum that reversed Brexit and kept the status quo would be less objectionable than May’s deal.

— Stephen Castle — The backlash begins

Even before the draft Brexit deal was published, or the government had made any public statement in its defense, the backlash was well underway in Parliament, with hard-line Conservatives condemning the plan in statements and television interviews.

The hard-liners argue that the deal would leave Britain subject to European Union rules, but without having any say in making those rules. They are also alarmed that Britain would not have a unilateral right to quit the temporary customs union.

May’s former Brexit secretary, David Davis, described the deal on Twitter as “EU domination, imprisonment in the customs union and 2nd class status,” adding that “Cabinet and all Conservative MPs should stand up, be counted and say no to this capitulation.”

As she left meetings at 10 Downing Street on Wednesday, Mordaunt, the minister for international development, refused to answer reporters who asked whether she supported the plan.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, a hard-core Brexit supporter and longtime critic of the government’s negotiating strategy, told the BBC that the proposed deal was “a failure of the government’s negotiating position and a failure to deliver on Brexit.”

— Stephen Castle

— A watery new catchphrase

To the canon of Brexit metaphors — the divorce, the cliff’s edge, the cake-eating — negotiators have added another: the swimming pool.

Inscrutable as it may be, that’s how diplomats in Brussels are describing a crucial piece of the Brexit deal: the decision on how closely Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be yoked to the European market if Britain and the European Union cannot negotiate a long-term trade deal after Brexit, journalist Robert Peston reported.

This swimming pool has two levels. Northern Ireland would be in the deep end, up to its nose in European regulations. That would keep trading frictionless with Ireland, a country that is staying in the European Union, preventing the return of an Irish border.

But Great Britain would be in the shallow end. It would stay in the European customs union, like Northern Ireland, but escape the single market for goods. That would give it some distance from the bloc’s regulations but still prevent it from striking its own trade deals with non-European countries.

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The division between deep and shallow ends of the pool could be a deal-breaker.

It would mean different trading rules within the U.K., and the prospect of a border — however meaningless European negotiators insist it would be — in the Irish Sea.

— Benjamin Mueller