Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May said cabinet approval of a draft Brexit agreement was a 'collective decision'
London (AFP) - British Prime Minister Theresa May won the support of her bitterly divided cabinet on Wednesday for a draft divorce deal with the European Union that has put both Brexit and her leadership at stake.
May emerged from a five-hour meeting with ministers that had sent the value of the pound gyrating to announce she had the government's backing to move ahead with her Brexit plan.
"The collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration," May said outside her Downing Street office.
But the embattled leader conceded that she could face even stronger resistance when she takes the 585-page text to parliament for approval next month.
Rumours of cabinet resignations and a plot by eurosceptic MPs in May's own party to unseat her saw the pound plunge one percent in a wild hour of trading that ended with the currency on the upswing.
The European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the agreement showed "decisive progress" towards a final Brexit deal and said that now "both sides have to take their responsibility".
The framework text agreed on Tuesday capped a year-and-a-half of negotiations aimed at unwinding nearly 46 years of British EU membership.
- Deal, no deal or no Brexit -
Its announcement saw May come under attack from both those backing a cleaner break with Europe and those dreading a future in which Britain strikes out on its own.
May's government is split between the two camps -- as is parliament and much of the country.
The premier said she engaged in an "impassioned debate" with her ministers -- and that there "will be difficult days ahead".
But she added: "The choice before us is clear.
"This deal, which delivers on the vote of the (2016) referendum, which brings 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 did not explain how Brexit might still not happen on March 29 -- a possibility rooted on passionately by many of those who lost the 2016 vote by a 52-48 margin.
Barnier said the two sides had crucially found the right formula to avoid a "hard" border between British Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland -- the main sticking point in the talks.
"We have now found a solution, along with the UK, to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland," Barnier told reporters.
Under the draft agreement, the whole of Britain will remain in a customs arrangement with the EU as a "backstop" if the two sides fail to reach a broader agreement within a 21-month transition.
EU Council president Donald Tusk's office said he would give a Brexit statement on Thursday, as Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said an extraordinary Brexit summit to finalise the deal could now be held on November 25.
- 'Shambolic' negotiations -
Appearing before the House of Commons earlier Wednesday, May confronted the anger of both those who want a cleaner break with Brussels and those who think Brexit is a disaster.
Conservative Party MP Peter Bone, a leading eurosceptic, accused May of "not delivering the Brexit people voted for".
Angry Brexit supporters and critics rallied outside May's office in Downing Street as she tried to get her disgruntled ministers to line up behind the deal.
In Boston, the town in England with the highest Brexit vote in Britain, residents agreed.
"It's crap," retiree Kathrine Denham, 74. "She's reneging on everything we voted for."
More ominously, the Northern Irish party propping up May's government threatened to break their alliance over leaks about a special arrangement for the British province.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster said she would be briefed about the deal by May late Wednesday, warning that "there will be consequences" if the leaks were true.
Northern Ireland would have special status under the backstop proposals, which would align it with the European single market.
This means that some checks will be required between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country on farm products and agriculture.
The arrangement has not gone down well in Scotland, where the pro-independence and europhile government also questioned the deal.
Its nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon asked why Northern Ireland should have a special status that would effectively keep it in the European single market while Scotland should not.
Importantly, its outlines won the backing of big business, whose support is crucial for May as she tries to sell the plan.
The Confederation of British Industry said the draft "moves the UK one step away from the nightmare precipice".