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Cabinet showdown after May negotiates major Brexit breakthrough

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Theresa May is today braced for a showdown with senior ministers over her Brexit divorce deal after negotiators secured a major breakthrough last night.

Amid mounting Brexiteer fury, Number 10 said the Cabinet would discuss the draft withdrawal agreement text at an emergency meeting to “decide on next steps” following individual briefings in the hours after the news broke.

But a spokesman for EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier immediately downplayed the claim, pointing to comments by EU Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans that “we are not there yet”.

This was echoed by the Irish government, with a spokesman dismissing reports of a deal as “speculation”.

The dramatic development came as the UK Government was forced to agree to publish its legal advice on the proposed deal and the commission agreed Britons travelling to EU nations after Brexit should not have to get an entry visa even if Britain leaves without a deal.

Scottish Secretary David Mundell said he was “encouraged” but insisted Cabinet needed to “reflect on the detail”.

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And within minutes Brexiteers were already threatening to vote down the agreement in moves that suggest it could be derailed before even being formally announced.

Mrs May also came under immediate fire from the Scottish Government, which demanded to see the draft document.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “If the prime minister’s ‘deal’ satisfies no one and can’t command a majority, we mustn’t fall for her spin that the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal is then inevitable.

“Instead we should take the opportunity to get better options back on the table.”
Aberdeen South MP Ross Thomson said if the reported contents were true, the deal would be “completely unacceptable” to him and “all unionists”.

Meanwhile, ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson urged his former Cabinet colleagues to “chuck it out”, warning that the proposals made a “nonsense of Brexit”.

Their anger erupted amid unconfirmed reports relating to the detail of the so-called backstop mechanism.

A long-time sticking point, negotiators have been working to agree a safety net to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland while maintaining the integrity of the EU single market on the one hand and the UK internal market on the other.

The Press and Journal understands the agreed deal will involve one overall backstop in the form of a UK-wide customs arrangement – as sought by Mrs May – but with deeper provisions for Northern Ireland on customs and regulations.

A review mechanism is believed to be part of the text, but it is unclear whether that would meet the demands of Tory Brexiteers who want the UK to be able to unilaterally walk away from the deal to prevent it becoming a permanent settlement.

Mr Thomson said he found it “difficult to believe Northern Ireland will be hived off” from the rest of the UK. He added: “It goes against everything that was promised.”

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith agreed the government would be “breaking their own agreed position and will be bringing back something that is untenable” if this proves to be true.

“If the Cabinet agrees it, the party certainly won’t,” he added.

Asked if the government’s days were numbered, he replied: “If this is the case almost certainly, yes.”

DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson, whose party props up Mrs May’s minority administration in the Commons, warned she must honour the promises she had made “time and time in the House and to us privately and to the public” to maintain the integrity of the union.

And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stressed it was “unlikely to be a good deal for the country” based on the “shambolic handling” of the negotiations.

A Number 10 spokesman said last night: “Cabinet will meet at 2pm on Wednesday to consider the draft agreement the negotiating teams have reached in Brussels and to decide on next steps.”