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07.48 15 Nov 2018


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Theresa May has firmly defended the draft Brexit deal, as she faces increasing pressure from within her own party.

An extraordinary day has seen several high-profile resignations from Mrs May's cabinet, as well as a mounting threat of a no-confidence motion in the Conservative leader from party rebels.

In a press conference this evening, the British Prime Minister acknowledged that leadership is never easy - especially when the stakes are so high - but said she intends to see the process through.

She said: "My approach throughout has been to put the national interest first."

Mrs May suggested the British people just want her government to 'get on with it' and deliver Brexit.

She thanked cabinet members who had resigned today "for their service", but stressed: "I believe with every fibre of my being that the course I have set out is right one for our country and all our people."

She said that while she 'shares some of the concerns' about parts of the agreement - including the backstop to avoid a hard border in Ireland - she also insisted there is no deal that can be agreed with the EU that does not involve a backstop.

Resignations

It comes after a day of Westminster drama that saw several senior Conservatives resign from their positions - including Brexit secretary Dominic Raab.

Mr Raab said he could not in good conscience support the terms proposed in the deal - and set out two primary reasons.

He explained: "First, I believe the regulatory regime proposed for Northern Ireland presents a very real threat to the integrity of the UK.

"Second, I cannot support an indefinite backstop arrangement, where the EU holds a veto over our ability to exit.

"No democratic nation has ever signed to be bound by such an extensive regime, exposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to decide to exit the arrangement."

Media reports in the UK have suggested Michael Gove - one of the few staunchly pro-Brexit MPs remaining in Mrs May's cabinet - has been offered the Brexit secretary job in the wake of Mr Raab's resignation, but it was unclear if he had accepted the offer.

Mrs May on Thursday evening said she had not appointed anyone to the role yet - pointing out it had been a 'busy day'.

The UK's Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey also resigned from the British cabinet earlier today.

Several junior ministers also stepped down - with Shailesh Vara MP, a minister of state at the Northern Ireland Office, the first to resign in protest on Thursday morning.

No-confidence letters

Meanwhile, leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg - who leads the Eurosceptic European Research Group of Conservative MPs - submitted a letter of no-confidence in Mrs May, increasing the threat of a Tory leadership challenge.

The MP said it was "in the interest of the party and the country if she were to stand aside", but later insisted he was not staging a "coup" against her.

Several other Conservative MPs also confirmed on Thursday they had submitted their own letters amid growing discontent within the party over the Brexit plan.

If 48 MPs submit letters, then a vote of confidence in Prime Minister May will have to be called.

It comes as a British opinion poll from YouGov shows that the number of respondents who oppose the deal outnumbers those who support it by more than two to one - although almost two-fifths of respondents indicated they didn't know what they thought of the draft deal.

European response

While Mrs May faces an uphill fight to get the draft withdrawal agreement signed off by the British parliament, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and EU leaders welcomed the 585 page draft withdrawal agreement.

Mr Varadkar said the deal offers a “satisfactory outcome” on Irish priorities – including protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the Common Travel Area.

He observed: “It envisages that the UK and the EU would establish a shared customs territory with Northern Ireland applying some additional rules for goods to ensure that no need for border between north and south arises."

“The text makes clear that this backstop would apply unless and until a better solution is agreed.”

Speaking on Thursday morning, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier warned that "our work is not finished" and there is still a "long road ahead" for all sides.

However, he stressed that the draft deal was fair and balanced and ensures no hard border on the island of Ireland.

The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has confirmed that a special summit of EU leaders will be held on November 25th.

Additional reporting by Jack Quann and Stephen McNeice


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