For more than two years, Prime Minister Theresa May has had to navigate the disunion that plagues not just the U.K. over Brexit, but also her party — even her own cabinet.
On Thursday, May took the full force of it.
By the time she was speaking in Parliament to defend the draft deal she agreed, with Brussels negotiators, on the terms for Britain’s exit from the European Union, five more of her cabinet ministers had resigned, including Dominic Raab, the minister responsible for Brexit.
Selling any deal to such a fractious crowd was always going to be a challenge for May. But it’s hard to imagine how she can recover from the biggest blow so far: losing her second Brexit minister since the position was created.
“I cannot reconcile the terms of the proposed deal with the promises we made to the country in our manifesto at the last election,” Raab wrote in a letter Thursday.
Like any divorce settlement, the Brexit deal was bound to be a grudging, imperfect compromise.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab announced his resignation on Thursday. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)
But in the unusual breakup between Great Britain and the European Union, there was the added challenge of trying to please multiple sides. Now that a draft compromise is on the table, most of those sides in Britain are up in arms.
“We’re in the Brexs*it,” screamed the Sun newspaper. “May’s soft Brexit deal blasted by all sides.”
Raab, along with Northern Ireland Minister Shailesh Vara, Work and Pensions Minister Esther McVey, Junior Brexit Minister Suella Braverman and Junior Education Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan, all resigned from May’s government Thursday.
“The government is falling apart before our eyes as for a second time, the Brexit secretary has refused to back the prime minister’s Brexit plan,” said Jon Trickett, a member of opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s senior team.
“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.”
Fraught road ahead for May
At this late stage in a negotiation process that’s lasted more than two years, May had hoped an ultimatum would save her and the draft she painstakingly reached with the EU: it’s either this deal, or chaos.
Beyond walking away, it was the only tactic she had left.
Both Wednesday and Thursday, May outlined the choices available: a deal “which brings back control of our money, laws and borders, ends free movement, protects jobs, security and our union; or leave with no deal, or no Brexit at all.”
Watch May’s full statement:
U.K. prime minister tells reporters she has won the support of her cabinet for the agreement. She now faces the greater challenge of getting it approved by Parliament. 2:25
Surviving the grilling in Parliament on Thursday is just one part of a still fraught road to getting her way. But even that doesn’t guarantee success.
In her opening statement, May paid tribute to Raab and other ministers for the work they had done on the deal. “Delivering Brexit involves difficult choices for all of us,” she said.
“I do not pretend that this has been a comfortable process — or that either we or the EU are entirely happy with all of the arrangements that have been included within it.”
The deal as it stands sets out the terms of the divorce, which is set to happen on March 29: the $67-billion bill, and the protection of the rights of each other’s citizens once the breakup happens. It would end free movement that is possible under the current relationship.
The most controversial are provisions that would temporarily keep the United Kingdom aligned with EU rules as long as necessary to avoid border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The deal also allows for the extension of the transition period as the two sides work out a new trading arrangement. The transition period is currently set for 21 months.
In the Commons on Thursday, she again warned of the consequences of voting against the deal.
“Voting against a deal would take us all back to Square 1,” she said. “It would mean more uncertainty, more division, and a failure to deliver on the decision of the British people that we should leave the EU.”
Full-blown criticism came from all sides of a packed house. Some of the most devastating came from her own side. In a question, Brexiteer Jacob Rees Mogg threatened to pen a letter adding his voice to the call for a no-confidence vote.
There is no indication yet that such a vote is imminent.
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party “will not accept a false choice between this bad deal and no deal.”
In an ominous sign for May, Nigel Dodds, an MP from the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist party (DUP), which is propping up May’s government, called on MPs to vote against the deal that amounts to a “vassal state.”
Some suggested it was time to plan in earnest for a no-deal scenario.
Such arguments were heard on all sides of the House, strongly indicating Britain could be heading toward yet another political correction, one that the prime minister and her government may not survive.
With both the Labour Party and the DUP unhappy with the deal, an eventual vote in the Commons — if it even comes to that — could bring the entire thing down, taking May’s premiership with it.
Earlier, a former May chief of staff outlined his concerns in the Daily Telegraph.
“British compromises were inevitable,” Nick Timothy wrote. “But the proposal presented to cabinet is a capitulation … not only to Brussels, but to the fears of the British negotiators themselves.”
Government in jeopardy?
With just weeks left before the Brexit date, May still managed to get the 585-page compromise past her divided cabinet on Wednesday, clearing just one of several hurdles before it can be approved.
Even so, the threat remained that more of her cabinet members will walk in protest, jeopardizing her government. Then the resignations started, first with Vara, who argued the deal puts the U.K. in a “halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign nation.”
In between the two came the blow about Raab. In his letter to May, he said he was unhappy with provisions that singled out Northern Ireland, because they present a “very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom.” He also wrote that leaving the U.K. in line with EU rules, even temporarily, allows the EU to hold “a veto over our ability to exit.”
The most immediate threat to May and her plan remains in her own Conservative Party, where the foaming discontent quickly turned Wednesday into open rebellion.
Even before the angry airing in the Commons on Thursday, unhappy Tory MPs took to the airwaves and social media with expressions of disappointment and rancour — accusing May of failing to deliver the Brexit voters had envisioned.
Anti-Brexit demonstrators protest outside Parliament on Wednesday. May has been adamant there won’t another referendum on leaving the European Union. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)
Brexiteers challenged her Wednesday in the Commons, in letters and in the mounting likelihood of a no-confidence vote.
“I do feel that we are getting … at the point where there’s going to be a confidence vote on the prime minister given the controversy around the Brexit proposals,” said Tory MP Andrew Bridgen.
Downing Street appears to be hoping that the looming uncertainty from a leadership contest or a general election this far down the Brexit road might persuade just enough MPs on all sides to accept the deal and move on.
With opposition among both remainers and Brexiteers, the math suggests otherwise.
Meanwhile, a date has been set for an EU summit to consider the deal: Nov. 25. The U.K. House of Commons would then have to ratify it.
As the great unravelling continues, this is a union far more disunited over Brexit than the one it seeks to leave.