Despite Cabinet approval for her Brexit plan, May’s next hurdle is still insurmountable

The prime minister's Cabinet did not give unanimous backing to her plans and her party is similarly split.

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After more than five hours of “long, detailed and impassioned” debate, the Cabinet agreed to support the prime minister’s draft withdrawal agreement with Brussels. 

Is it a victory? In a very small and heavily qualified sense, maybe. So in a meaningful sense, not at all. However, it was widely predicted that May would not be able to secure the collective agreement of Cabinet to her deal – be it from Brexiteers like Penny Mordaunt, the International Development Secretary, Esther McVey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, or David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary (whose position looked in serious doubt amid concerns over fishing rights earlier today).

That, however, is exactly what she has managed to secure for now. Addressing the media outside Downing Street, May offered a precis of the argument that looks – for now – to have won the support of a majority her Cabinet. It is also the argument that she hopes – in most cases vainly – will convince Tory rebels when the meaningful vote comes.

When you strip away the detail the choice before us is clear. This deal – which delivers on the vote of the referendum, which brings us back control of our money, laws and borders, ends free movement, protects jobs, security and our union – or leave with no deal, or no Brexit at all.

May went on:

It’s my job as prime minister to explain the decisions that the government has taken, and I stand ready to do that, beginning tomorrow with a statement in parliament.

Let me end by just saying this; I believe that what I owe to this country is to take decisions that are in the national interest and I firmly believe, with my head and my heart, that this is a decision that is in the best interests of our entire United Kingdom.

This is where the series of very big caveats must begin. The first, and most obvious, is that "collective" agreement does not mean unanimous agreement. The Cabinet is still badly split. At least 10 ministers are understood to have spoken against the deal, which does not suggest that May has escaped the prospect of resignations (though there is a naturally a limit the extent to which any of these ministers can genuinely said to be "against" these proposals if they don't resign). And the only people who had seen the text of the deal when the prime minister spoke – and not for long enough to have properly read and digested its contents – were the 32 people around the Cabinet table. Junior ministers and the rest of the Conservative parliamentary party are only just getting the chance to.

Their reactions are likely to influence what wavering ministers do and it doesn’t follow from May's qualified victory that none will find the burden of collective responsibility too much to bear, as Boris Johnson and David Davis did some 48 hours after May’s vision for Brexit was unanimously approved at Chequers in June.

Then, of course, there is the question of whether May can secure parliamentary approval for the withdrawal agreement. Its answer already looks like a foregone conclusion. Without the DUP’s 10 MPs – whose Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson has said tonight that they will vote against the deal – that job is very difficult. If only a handful of European Research Group MPs heed Jacob Rees-Mogg’s call to vote against the deal on top of those MPs, then it is as good as impossible. The likelihood is that there will be at least 20, and that we know Cabinet Brexiteers have reservations about the deal means Downing Street has even less hope of selling it do backbenchers unbound by collective responsibility. 

Looking at the text of the draft deal, there is no reason why either of those things won't happen. There will be new checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The UK, far from diverging a la Canada, will remain closely aligned to EU rules on just about everything. The backstop will see some single market regulations apply to Northern Ireland alone – which will also alienate Scottish Tory MPs as well as the DUP. There is no unilateral mechanism for the UK to leave it – instead, it can only be ended jointly, which will enrage Brexiteers. Likewise the transition period, which, ominously, can be extended indefinitely to "20XX". 

The nub of the problem for May is still this: having haemorrhaged the DUP and a couple of dozen of her own MPs, a significant number of Labour rebels will still be required to pass the deal (which in of itself is enough to repel some Tory Brexiteers). With the exception of Frank Field, they do not appear to be forthcoming – and nor is support from Jeremy Corbyn. As May herself said, difficult days await. Her small victory this evening is illusory, and the next hurdle – passing the deal in parliament – is still insurmountable.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.