Securing a Brexit deal with the E.U. was tough, but even with the cabinet behind her, Prime Minister Theresa May faces a battle to secure the approval of rebellious M.P.s.
The House of Commons will have the final say on the deal, likely in early December, with huge implications for Britain’s future—and May’s job. Her Conservative party has a slim majority in the 650-seat lower parliamentary chamber thanks to the support of the small Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But the Tories are split, with Brexiteers and pro-Europeans both threatening to reject the deal, while the DUP’s initial reaction to the draft agreement has been hostile.
May will need votes from the main opposition Labour party to get the deal through, and while the leadership has warned it will not save her, individuals M.P.s just might.
In her statement on Wednesday after winning cabinet support for the deal, May admitted there would be “difficult days ahead.”
A defeat could have far-reaching consequences, from the collapse of May’s government to the potentially catastrophic possibility that Britain leaves the E.U. in March with no deal, severing all ties with its closest trading partner overnight.
The negotiations with Brussels have been complicated throughout by the need for May to appease critics at home, and the fact she has now announced a deal suggests she believes it can pass. “There’s no point agreeing something that’s not going to be acceptable here,” one official said as talks were wrapped up.
But the early reaction from M.P.s, many of whom expressed outrage even before seeing the text, emphasizes what a tough task she has over the coming weeks.
Eurosceptic Conservative M.P. Peter Bone summarized the mood among many of his peers when he addressed May during question time in the Commons earlier. If reports of the deal were correct, he said, “you are not delivering the Brexit people voted for, and today you will lose the support of many Conservative M.P.s and millions of voters.”
Leading Brexiteer M.P. Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of an influential group of Tories, said it would result in Britain becoming a “colony ruled by overlords in Brussels.” Ominously, he indicated for the first time that he was prepared not to oppose just May’s plan but her leadership. “There comes a point at which the policy and the individual become so intimately connected that it would be very hard to carry on supporting the person who is promoting this policy,” he told the BBC.
Up to 70 Conservative M.P.s are members of Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group, while 51 have signed up to the Stand Up 4 Brexit group that opposes May’s plan. Many believe leaving the E.U. with no deal at all would be preferable to the current plan, that keeps Britain closely tied to the bloc.
Opposition among pro-European Conservatives has also hardened since junior transport minister Jo Johnson resigned last week, calling for a second referendum.
Anti-Brexit campaigners reject May’s assertion that it is her deal or nothing, saying voters must make the final decision. “A choice between this miserable Brexit and no deal is no choice at all,” said former Tory minister Dominic Grieve.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also signaled he will oppose it, instead pressing for another election—although some in his party are also backing a second referendum. “This government spent two years negotiating a bad deal that will leave the country in an indefinite halfway house without a real say,” Corbyn told May in the Commons.
But individual Labour M.P.s have previously indicated they could back the government, many representing manufacturing areas that could suffer without a Brexit deal. “If you’re going to say no you need some bloody good reasons why if we’re going to end up with no deal,” M.P. Caroline Flint told the Yorkshire Post newspaper last month.