Mrs May began last night setting the stage for a mammoth parliamentary battle over Brexit after telling MPs she had won “the right deal for the UK.”
But she ended up speaking to a near-empty chamber in a warning of the uphill struggle she faces to win Commons backing for the deal.
Calling time on the negotiations after more than 18 months of wrangling, the Prime Minister promised that a new relationship with Brussels was “within our grasp” and urged the country to look forward to a “brighter future”. She flies to Brussels this weekend for the package to be presented to the 27 other EU leaders for approval on Sunday.
At 3pm when Mrs May first got to her feet in the House both her own benches and the benches of Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition were full. But as she outlined Britain’s Brexit future MPs on both sides shamefully skulked away and two hours later House of Commons was but empty.
A string of former Tory Cabinet ministers including Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Iain Duncan Smith tore into details deal during a two-and-a-half hour Commons session while other leading Brexiteers accused her of “surrender”.
News that the deal had been concluded yesterday spread around Westminster when a 26-page text of the completed “political declaration” on the future relationship between the UK and Brussels was leaked yesterday morning.
Shortly afterwards, EU Council President Donald Tusk announced he was sending to the document to the other 27 EU leaders.
“It has been agreed at negotiators’ level and agreed in principle at political level, subject to the endorsement of the leaders,” he said.
The House of Commons at 3pm (top image) and 5.20pm (bottom image)
Mrs May then formally announced her deal in a statement to cameras in Downing Street.
Standing in front of the door of Number 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister said: “This is the right deal for the UK. It delivers on the vote of the referendum. It brings back control of our borders, our money and our laws.
“And it does so while protecting jobs, protecting our security and protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom.”
She added: “The British people want this to be settled. They want a good deal that sets us on course for a brighter future. That deal is within our grasp and I am determined to deliver it.”
Empty House of Commons during the draft Brexit statement given by Theresa May
The political declaration – designed to form the basis of a new trade deal to be thrashed out after Britain quits the EU next year – promised an “ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership” between Britain and the bloc.
It said trade will be “underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition” while “respecting the integrity of the Union’s single market and customs union as well as the UK’s internal market” while confirming EU free movement for migrants to travel to the UK would end.
The deal was signed off by the Cabinet in a hastily arranged conference call yesterday.
A Downing Street source said: “There was strong support for the declaration that has been negotiated. The Cabinet agreed it overall and on specific areas of ministerial responsibility.”
Dominic Raab, resigned as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union
Mrs May was given strong public backing from Home Secretary Sajid Javid last night. In an interview in Westminster’s The House magazine, he said: “I think that the draft agreement the Prime Minister has reached with our EU friends delivers on the referendum.
“The country made a clear decision, it delivered instructions to the politicians and we have to obey those instructions.
“What the Prime Minister has worked on is a deal that I believe delivers on that. It gives us back control of our laws, of our money and our borders.”
Reporting her deal to the Commons, the Prime Minister told MPs: “The British people want Brexit to be settled; they want a good deal that sets us on a course for a brighter future and they want us to come together as a country and to move on to focus on the big issues at home, like our NHS.
Britain is to quit the EU next year
“The deal that will enable us to do this is now within our grasp.
“In these crucial 72 hours ahead, I will do everything possible to deliver it for the British people.”
But in another gruelling question-and-answer session at the Commons dispatch box, the Prime Minister weathered a series of attacks from Tory heavyweights about the so-called “Northern Ireland backstop”.
Mr Johnson, the former foreign secretary, told her the plan made “a complete nonsense of Brexit”.
He said: “We should junk forthwith the backstop, upon which the future economic partnership – according to this political declaration – is to be based, and which makes a complete nonsense of Brexit.”
Theresa May and EU Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels
Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab warned the deal would “do the opposite” of giving the country back control.
“The backstop ties the UK to the customs union and single market rules with no voice and an EU veto over our exit whilst paragraph 23 of the political declaration makes that the starting point for future relations to build on.
“The top reason people voted to leave the EU was to take back control over our laws. Isn’t it the regrettable but inescapable reality that this deal gives even more away?”
Former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers said: “The withdrawal agreement locks us in to paying the £38 billion and also commits us to a backstop which has us obeying their rules and applying their customs rules without any say over them.”
In her statement, the Prime Minister confirmed she had won concessions from the EU that will encourage high-tech customs checks to be used to try to prevent the need for a hard border as an alternative to the “backstop”.
She acknowledged that Mr Duncan Smith and former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson had helped with ideas about the plan.
But both former ministers told the Commons they could still not back the plan in its current form.
Mr Duncan Smith urged her to “strip out the backstop” while Mr Paterson said the measure threatened “the horror of Northern Ireland being split off”.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, chief whip of Mrs May’s parliamentary allies in the Democratic Unionist Party, called on the Prime Minister to dump the backstop and come forward with the alternatives set out in the political declaration instead.
He said: “If she wants to have the support of my party for the withdrawal agreement then we need to see an end to the backstop and those alternative arrangements put in place.”
Pro-Brussels Tories also attacked the deal, with some calling for a fresh referendum.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn condemned the political declaration as “26 pages of waffle”.
Theresa Villiers, former Northern Ireland Secretary
He said: “The only certainty contained within these pages is that the transition period will have to be extended or we will end up with a backstop and no exit.
“It represents the worst of all worlds, no say over the rules that will continue to apply and no certainty to the future.”
Tory whips were beginning the challenging task of trying to win over sceptical backbenchers last night.
A senior Tory source said: “We will be seeking to persuade all of our colleagues on the Conservative benches that this is a good deal for the country that delivers on the referendum
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn condemned the political declaration as “26 pages of waffle”
“It takes back control of borders, money and laws and does that while protecting jobs and security.”
Tory Brexiteer MPs gave the Prime Minister an early taste of the opposition within her party to the deal within an hour of its publication.
Senior Tory backbencher Sheryll Murray said: “In the EU referendum people voted to taken back control of our fish. Yet now the Prime Minister wants to commit us to stay in the Common Fisheries Policy in all but name.
“She seeks to enter a new fisheries agreement on access to waters and quota shares. Let’s be clear. This is a betrayal of Brexit.”
The Brexit draft
Former Cabinet minister Priti Patel said: “Everything the EU wanted from the negotiations has ended up in the Withdrawal Agreement – which is a legally enforceable international treaty.
“That’s why we’re going to stay in the EU customs union, remain subject to judgments of the European Court, imperil our Union and allow the EU to have a veto over when we can leave the backstop.
“Everything the UK wanted has been put in an unenforceable, meaningless declaration. And it’s cost us £39billion.
“This is a costly surrender by the UK Government.”
Scottish Secretary David Mundell
Simon Clarke, another Eurosceptic Tory backbencher, said: “The political declaration is a well-meaning but ultimately meaningless set of words.
“All the perils of the Withdrawal Agreement would bind the UK with the force of an international treaty. It will lock us into the EU customs union, subject us to the European Court’s judgments, threaten our union, give the EU the power to say when we can leave the backstop and cost the UK £39billion.
“And anything we wanted from the negotiations has been trumpeted in a political declaration which has absolutely no legal effect on anyone.
“This is a declaration of surrender by the UK Government.”
PM Theresa May declares that her Brexit deal is
Ranil Jayawardena, who quit as a ministerial aide last week in protest at the deal, said: “This isn’t a settlement; it’s a surrender.
“Instead of taking back control, we will be abandoning control over vast swathes of our social and economic policy – and we will be simply unable to agree the trade deals of tomorrow with the rest of the world.
“This ‘deal’ stops us seizing the benefits of Brexit, whilst shackling us to the worst parts of the EU.
“This is not a good and fair Brexit. It is not fair to the 17.4 million people who voted to leave in 2016, and isn’t good enough for many who voted to remain either. A deal that delivers on the referendum is possible, and this isn’t it.”
Former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith
And Mrs May was facing an angry backlash over the future for Britain’s territorial fishing waters.
Scottish Tory MP Ross Thomson branded the political declaration “unacceptable”, as he said the UK “must be a normal independent coastal state like Norway”.
He tweeted the “political declaration commits UK to “establish a new fisheries agreement on, inter allia, access to waters and quota shares” and added: “This means sovereignty over our waters sacrificed for a trade deal.”
Tory Cabinet minister and Brexiteer Boris Johnson
But Scottish Secretary David Mundell insisted the political declaration was a “good deal” for the fishing industry, which would allow the UK to become an independent coastal state and leave the “hated” CFP.
Speaking during a visit to an Edinburgh school, he said Britain would be “able to negotiate its own agreement on access and quotas with the EU just as Iceland and Norway do at the moment”.
The minister added: “There will be no pre-existing arrangements in the political declaration.
“Quotas and access will be discussed but there will be no predetermined arrangements as to what those quotas and access will be. It will be decided annually.”