Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has resigned saying he “cannot in good conscience support” the UK’s draft Brexit agreement with the EU.
He was swiftly followed out of the door by Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey and junior Brexit minister Suella Braverman.
It comes hours after Theresa May announced that she had secured the backing of her cabinet for the deal.
Chief whip Julian Smith said the PM “will not be bullied”.
She is currently making a Commons statement on the Brexit agreement, telling MPs it delivers “the Brexit the British people voted for” and will allow the UK to take control of its “money, laws and borders”.
Mr Raab – a Leave supporter who was promoted to the cabinet to replace David Davis when he quit in protest at Mrs May’s Brexit plans – is among a group of senior ministers thought to be unhappy with the agreement.
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Mr Raab was closely involved in drafting the 585-page document, which sets out the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU.
In his resignation letter, Mr Raab said he could not support it because the regulatory regime proposed for Northern Ireland “presents a very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom”.
And, he added, the “backstop” arrangements aimed at preventing the return of a hard Irish border would result in the EU “holding a veto over our ability to exit”.
“Above all, I cannot reconcile the terms of the proposed deal with the promises we made to the country in our manifesto at the last election,” he told the prime minister.
In her resignation letter, Esther McVey told Mrs May the agreement does not “honour the result of the referendum, indeed it does not meet the tests you set from the outset of your premiership”.
“We have gone from no deal is better than a bad deal to any deal is better than no deal,” she added.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a ministerial aide at the education department, has also quit.
Northern Ireland minister Shailesh Vara was the first to resign over Mrs May’s agreement on Thursday morning, saying, it “leaves the UK in a halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign nation”.
Conservative Brexiteer MP Anne Marie Morris told BBC News she believed enough Tory MPs had now submitted letters of no-confidence in the prime minister to trigger a leadership contest.
She said there was enough time to install a new prime minister and change course on Brexit, adding: “Now is not the time for her leadership.”
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, said: “It is now clear the prime minister didn’t have the backing of her cabinet.”
He urged her to “listen to Parliament” where, he claimed, there would be a “growing majority” against a no-deal Brexit and in favour of other options.
The resignations came as European Council President Donald Tusk announced an emergency meeting of EU leaders in Brussels on 25 November, at which the withdrawal agreement and a political declaration on future relations will be finalised and formalised.
What is in the withdrawal agreement?
- commitments over citizens’ rights after Brexit – people will be able to work and study where they currently live and to be joined by family members
- a proposed 21-month transition period after the UK’s departure
- a “fair financial settlement” from the UK – also known as the £39bn “divorce bill”
But the controversial part relates to what will happen to the Irish border.
The agreement includes a “backstop” – a kind of safety net to ensure there is no hard border whatever the outcome of future trade talks between the UK and the EU.
The backstop will mean that Northern Ireland would stay aligned to some EU rules on things such as food products and goods standards.
It would also involve a temporary single customs territory, effectively keeping the whole of the UK in the EU customs union.
Brexiteers do not like the prospect of potentially being tied to EU customs rules for years or even, as some fear, indefinitely.
And Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has said it will not tolerate anything that creates a new border down the Irish Sea and they will not vote for the agreement.
What do supporters of the agreement say?
Mrs May has acknowledged she faces “difficult days ahead” as she attempts to win round critical MPs.
She insisted the deal was “in the best interests of the United Kingdom” and warned Brexiteers that if they failed to back her plan they risked ending up with “no Brexit at all”.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said MPs should back the plan because the alternatives of a no-deal Brexit or a second referendum were “ugly”.
Mr Hancock told the BBC “anybody in any compromise negotiated document can pick out individual parts that they would prefer were written differently” but a vote for the deal was nonetheless in the national interest.
Brexit: Dominic Raab and Esther McVey among ministers to quit over EU agreement}