The UK took a tentative step towards leaving the EU with a Brexit deal announced on Tuesday (13 November), as negotiators appeared to reach a technical agreement on its withdrawal from the bloc more than two years after Britain voted to leave.
The draft withdrawal text is believed to be over 500 pages long, while the so-called ‘political declaration’ outlining future trade and political relations between the EU and UK is only five pages, indicative of the fact that little hard negotiation has taken place on a future EU-UK trade deal.
The principle hold up on talks – and most likely to be a deal-breaker for May’s Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party – has been how to agree on a backstop or insurance policy to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The backstop will be needed if an agreement on future EU-UK trade relations cannot be struck before the end of a 21-month transition period due to start after the UK formally exits the bloc on 29 March next year.
On Tuesday night, officials in Brussels and London refused to be drawn on the details of the document, but that did not stop UK politicians lining up to oppose it, an indication that May is likely to find securing parliamentary approval for the deal in London to be as hard as obtaining it in Brussels.
Ministers will be expected to vote on whether to sign off on the proposed deal and put it to a vote in the House of Commons at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday (14 November).
In the meantime, May is expected to hold individual meetings with a handful of key ministers on Tuesday evening, in a bid to secure their support. Ministers will have the chance to read the two documents but will not be allowed to make copies.
The Irish cabinet is also understood to have scheduled an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the proposal.
However, on Tuesday evening, a spokesperson for Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney played down suggestions that a deal had been finalised, saying that “negotiations between the EU and UK on a Withdrawal Agreement are ongoing and have not concluded. Negotiators are still engaged and a number of issues are outstanding.”
Attention will now shift to London, where UK ministers including Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove and Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, all of whom campaigned for a Brexit vote in June 2016, will be under particular pressure to resign from their party’s backbenches.
May is likely to have to rely on persuading Labour MPs in ‘Leave’ voting constituencies, as well as Labour’s handful of Eurosceptic MPs, to back her.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn signalled that his party’s official position would be to oppose the deal, commenting that “from what we know of the shambolic handling of these negotiations, this is unlikely to be a good deal for the country”.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, who resigned as foreign secretary in July, said that the proposed agreement was “vassal state stuff”, and that it was “utterly unacceptable” that the UK would be bound by laws over which it has no say.
“This has been ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’ for some months. We are going to stay in the customs union, we are going to stay in large parts of the single market,” added Johnson.
For their part, the Democratic Unionist Party, the pro-Brexit Northern Irish party that is propping up May’s government under a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, refused to be drawn on how they would vote.
But a note of warning was sounded by DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds, who told reporters that “it looks very, very clear that the backstop as proposed does entail special provisions which go much deeper than a UK-wide customs provision for Northern Ireland, and we have made it clear that’s unacceptable.”