LONDON • Prime Minister Theresa May tried to convince senior ministers yesterday to accept a draft European Union divorce deal that opponents said would imperil her own government and threaten the unity of the United Kingdom.
As the EU braces itself for the biggest divorce in its history, the weakest British leader in a generation has to try to get the deal approved by Parliament before exiting the bloc on March 29 next year.
Mrs May told Parliament yesterday that the draft Brexit deal struck by British and EU negotiators delivered on the result of the 2016 referendum.
"What we have been negotiating is a deal that does deliver on the vote of the British people," Mrs May told rowdy MPs after a barrage of criticism from hardliners in her own Conservative Party, who said the agreement included unacceptable compromises.
Brexiteers in the Conservative Party accused her of surrendering to the EU and said they would vote the deal down, while the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her minority government, questioned whether she would be able to get parliamentary approval.
"From what we have seen and heard, we do not believe this is the best deal," said Mr Jeffrey Donaldson, a lawmaker in the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party.
"This deal has the potential to lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom and that is not something we can support," he added.
What we have been negotiating is a deal that does deliver on the vote of the British people.
BRITISH PM THERESA MAY
This government spent two years negotiating a bad deal that will leave the country in an indefinite halfway house.
MR JEREMY CORBYN, leader of the main opposition Labour Party.
You are not delivering the Brexit people voted for and, today, you will lose the support of many Conservative MPs and millions of voters.
CONSERVATIVE MP PETER BONE, a leading pro-Brexit lawmaker.
The sterling, which has seesawed since reaching US$1.50 just before Britain's 2016 referendum that saw a 52-48 per cent margin for leaving the EU, surged on news of a deal, but then erased some gains as opponents lined up to criticise Mrs May.
EU leaders could meet on Nov 25 for a summit to seal the Brexit deal if Mrs May's Cabinet approves the text, diplomatic sources said.
The draft deal pushes the UK towards the Brexit finale, though the final outcome is uncertain - scenarios range from a calm divorce to upheaval that would scuttle the economy and sink Mrs May's premiership or even lead to another referendum.
Mrs May, an initial opponent of Brexit who won the top job in the turmoil following the referendum vote, staked her future on a deal which she hopes will solve the Brexit riddle - leaving the EU while preserving the closest possible ties.
Mrs May defended her agreement in front of MPs yesterday, saying it would guarantee an end to unlimited immigration from the EU and would allow Britain to set its own trade policy.
She said the agreement included a backstop to avoid a hard border in Ireland, but added that this would be a temporary "insurance policy" if no future relationship is agreed.
"We want to bring the future relationship into place at the end of December 2020," she said.
But Mr Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the agreement "breaches the Prime Minister's own red lines" and said negotiations with Brussels had been "shambolic".
"This government spent two years negotiating a bad deal that will leave the country in an indefinite halfway house," he said.
Conservative MP Peter Bone, a leading pro-Brexit lawmaker, also criticised Mrs May.
"You are not delivering the Brexit people voted for and, today, you will lose the support of many Conservative MPs and millions of voters," Mr Bone said.
Some business leaders, though, were positive about Mrs May's deal.
"My gut feeling is, we need to get behind it and we need to make this deal work. What we need is certainty," said Mr Juergen Maier, the UK chief executive of German engineering giant Siemens.
"I think it is better to get behind it, maybe fine-tune it a little bit and make it work.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE