Theresa May was fighting to get senior ministers on board with her Brexit plans as a Cabinet meeting to approve a draft withdrawal agreement dragged on well beyond its expected time.
There was confusion in Westminster as Government minister Nick Hurd wrongly told MPs that Mrs May had cancelled plans for a statement to the press on the outcome of the crunch meeting.
Downing Street was forced to issue a statement that the PM’s appearance before the TV cameras would go ahead. Mrs May is expected to deliver a brief statement without a lectern in front of the famous black door to Number 10.
Brexit-backing Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who has called for Mrs May’s removal as leader, tweeted: “Catastrophe and calamity. What an utter, total mess.”
Catastrophe and calamity. What an utter, total mess https://t.co/NHWzShSAJG— Nadine Dorries 🇬🇧#StayAlert (@NadineDorries) November 14, 2018
Mr Hurd’s misstatement came at about 5.30pm, after ministers had been locked in discussion around the Cabinet table for three and a half hours with little sign of the meeting drawing to an end.
Opposition leaders including Jeremy Corbyn had written to Mrs May to say it would be “entirely inappropriate” for her to brief the press before making a statement to MPs.
Reports suggested that many ministers were speaking at length about the 500-page document which they first saw on Tuesday evening, sparking speculation that Mrs May was having to address doubts among her top team.
The draft document sparked waves of condemnation from Brexit-backing Tory backbenchers, who fear it will commit the UK to remaining indefinitely within a customs union with the EU and unable to forge its own trade deals elsewhere.
Cabinet minister David Mundell joined other Scottish Tories in voicing unease about the treatment of fisheries in any post-Brexit arrangement, warning the Prime Minister they could not support a deal which failed to restore “complete control and full sovereignty” over UK waters.
All 13 Scottish Conservative MPs signed a joint letter warning the Prime Minister that they could not support a deal which failed to restore “complete control and full sovereignty” over the UK’s fishing waters.
Mr Mundell is among the few MPs to have read the draft agreement finalised on Tuesday, and his inclusion among the signatories sparked speculation that he may be ready to resign from the Cabinet if he is not satisfied by its contents.
In the letter, the MPs warn: “We could not support an agreement with the EU that would prevent the UK from independently negotiating access and quota shares… We also cannot stay in the Common Fisheries Policy after December 2020.”
The emergence of the letter came amid a febrile atmosphere in Westminster as Cabinet ministers gathered at 10 Downing Street for their historic 2pm meeting to decide whether to give their approval to the plan.
They met shortly after Mrs May urged MPs in the Commons to back an agreement which she said would bring the UK “significantly closer” to delivering the result of the 2016 referendum.
The level of Brexiteer discontent has raised expectations that further letters demanding a vote of no confidence in Mrs May will be sent to the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee – a total of 48 letters would trigger a showdown.
Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has previously held back from calling for Mrs May’s removal, said on Tuesday that “there comes a point at which the policy and the individual become so intimately connected that it will be very hard to carry on supporting the person who is promoting this policy”.
Tensions were heightened by reports that senior Brussels negotiator Sabine Weyand had told ambassadors the deal will mean the UK aligns its rules with Europe, while the EU “will retain all the controls”.
Ms Weyand – deputy to chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier – cast doubt on the veracity of a leaked note containing her supposed comments by “liking” a series of tweets which said it was “not an accurate reflection of the EU’s position”.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mrs May told MPs: “The Cabinet will decide on the next steps in the national interest.
“I am confident that this takes us significantly closer to delivering what the British people voted for in the referendum.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the draft deal was “a failure in its own terms” and a senior spokesman said that the “likelihood” was that the party would vote against it in the Commons.
Meanwhile, DUP leader Arlene Foster – whose party props up the minority Conservative administration in the Commons – said there would be “consequences” if the deal contained anything threatening the integrity of the United Kingdom.
“We could not as Unionists support a deal that broke up the United Kingdom,” said Mrs Foster, who flew to London and expects to meet Mrs May late on Wednesday.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar said the draft deal could provide the basis for a summit of EU leaders by the end of the month, potentially on November 25.
He said he was confident that the proposed arrangements would not negatively impact on the Good Friday Agreement, adding that Dublin was ready to write into any deal a legal guarantee for the unionist community in Northern Ireland, who he acknowledged were going through “a difficult time”.
Amid feverish speculation about possible Cabinet resignations, a succession of Conservative MPs came out in opposition to the reported contents of the agreement.
Speaking in the Commons, leading Brexiteer Peter Bone told the PM: “If the media reports about the EU agreement are in any way accurate, you will not be delivering the Brexit people voted for and today you will lose the support of many Conservative MPs and millions of voters across the country.”
The deputy chairman of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tories, Mark Francois, said Cabinet ministers should “look into their hearts and decide whether a Jaguar and a red box and a bunch of sycophantic civil servants calling you ‘Minister’ is more important than the destiny of your country”.
Crispin Blunt told the Press Association: “No deal is a great deal better than this.”
Leave-backing Tory MP Andrew Bridgen told PA: “This isn’t Brexit, it’s not even close to Brexit.
“If it were darts, it’s not missing the board, this is not even the right wall.”
Newton Abbot MP Anne Marie Morris tweeted: “If the leaked information on the proposed Brexit deal is accurate, I cannot support it… The PM is not delivering the Brexit people voted for.”
If the leaked information on the proposed Brexit deal is accurate, I cannot support it. A NI solution which divides the UK and a non-regression clause to ensure the UK cannot out compete the EU are completely unacceptable. The PM is not delivering the Brexit people voted for.— Anne Marie Morris MP (@AnneMarieMorris) November 14, 2018
As rival protesters chanted outside the gates to Downing Street, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was asked as he arrived for the meeting whether the Cabinet were happy with his advice on the deal.
He replied: “We’ll see.”
The draft agreement of more than 400 pages is understood to involve the UK remaining in a customs union and committing to a “level playing field” on EU rules in areas such as environmental and workplace protections during a backstop period after Brexit.
Cabinet ministers are also looking at a brief political declaration – possibly as short as five pages – setting out an outline framework agreed by EU and UK negotiators for future relations on issues such as trade and security.
This outline remains open for further negotiation ahead of any summit and a final deal will depend on it being acceptable to the UK in its full form.
Addressing concerns that the UK would not be able unilaterally to withdraw from any backstop arrangement, Mrs May told the Commons: “I am aware of the concerns that there are, that we don’t want to be in a position where the European Union would find it comfortable to keep the UK in the backstop permanently.
“That’s why any backstop has to be temporary.”