Tereza May is fighting on two fronts to save her Brexit negotiating strategy, with her own backbenchers lining up to describe it as unacceptable and European leaders warning that there could be no question of further concessions to the UK.
The embattled prime minister heard repeated calls to renegotiate her Brexit deal from rebel Tories during a heated Commons debate, after it emerged that the second half of the Brexit deal, the political declaration, had been finalised.
Iain Duncan Smith, Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab led the demands for a rethink as May faced MPs in a two-and-half-hour session on Thursday, in which the prime minister insisted that a final Brexit deal “is now within our grasp".
But in Europe, Germany said it was time to “put a lid on this pot” and conclude the deal at Sunday’s Brexit summit, while the EU prepared to lay out future negotiating demands over fisheries. The Spanish prime minister threatened to “veto Brexit” while his secretary of state for the EU accused Britain of treachery over Gibraltar.
The developments followed news that the siyosiy deklaratsiya, setting out the future relationship between the UK and the EU, had been agreed overnight following a meeting between May and the EU commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, in Brussels.
The 26-page document confirmed that May’s controversial Chequers plan to remain in a customs union for good had been ditched, but failed to guarantee frictionless trade and raised further concerns over future access to UK fishing waters by EU trawlers.
May tried to reassure her restive MPs that the UK would have “control over our waters” – and that the agreed text was “explicit about the determination of both sides” to avoid the unpopular Irish backstop, designed to ensure a free-flowing border in Ireland.
But there was no immediate sign that May had won round any of the 60-plus Tory rebels, who claim they will not be able to vote for her Brexit deal when it comes before the Commons in mid-December, after a debate in which a string of backbenchers reiterated their concerns about its impact on British sovereignty.
Meanwhile, EU states led by Frantsiya were pressing to continue with the status quo on fishing, whereby EU trawlers would have access to the UK after 2020. They are likely to issue a side-statement on Sunday outlining their demands, raising the political temperature for the prime minister.
Sabine Weyand, the EU’s deputy Brexit negotiator, tweeted: “We need an EU-UK fisheries agreement that covers both access to waters and market access,” just as May had begun to sell the declaration to the Commons.
After arriving on an official visit to Cuba, the Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez threatened to scupper the deal. He tweeted: “After my conversation with Theresa May, our positions remain far away. My government will always defend the interests of Ispaniya. If there are no changes, we will veto Brexit.”
Marco Aguiriano, Spain’s secretary of state for the EU, also accused the British government of “treachery” and operating “under the darkness of night” over Gibraltar, whilst speaking to the Spanish parliament.
The minister even warned his government could “stop the clock” on the negotiations, and force May and the other EU leaders to come back in December unless it gets its way in the next 48 hours – although the country cannot veto the deal in isolation.
In London, senior Conservative figures voiced their displeasure at the deal. Duncan Smith told May to “strip out the backstop”, while Johnson, the former foreign secretary, called for it to be junked. Raab, the former Brexit secretary who resigned last week, asked: “Isn’t it the regrettable but inescapable reality that this deal gives even more [control] away?”
Prior to the debate, Ross Thomson, a Scottish Conservative, had said the fishing section of the political declaration was unacceptable. Later he called on May to give a “cast-iron guarantee” that Weyand’s demand for an EU-UK fishing agreement would not be met.
The declaration published on Thursday is a plain-English, non-binding, aspirational document that is intended to outline the future political and trade relationship between the UK and EU. It sits alongside the legally binding withdrawal agreement published last week setting out the divorce terms, under which the UK will pay £39bn to leave the EU from next March.
No 10 is planning to kick off a campaign to win over sceptical MPs ahead of the final vote after May returns from Brussels. The focus will be on one-on-one meetings with her own backbenchers, though whips and ministers will also make overtures to select Labour MPs.
“She’ll stress the national interest,” one supportive minister said. “The Conservative party would not be forgiven for looking inwards and failing to get this right.”
The prime minister is also expected to travel across the UK to address specific local issues head on, for example fishing in Scotland and the impact of migration on northern towns, and stage a string of high-profile media appearances to attempt to sell her Brexit deal across the country.
David Mundell, the Scotland secretary, is understood to have decided that the political declaration did not cross his red lines on fishing and that it provided a decent starting point for negotiations, and has begun trying to persuade the more sceptical Tory backbenchers.
No 10 confirmed that the political declaration had replaced the controversial Chequers plan that had prompted the resignations of Johnson and David Davis in the summer, and said it contained a spectrum of options for the future trading relationship.
When asked if Chequers had been “chucked”, the spokesman added: “What the document provides is for us to pursue whichever option we so choose. We were told that the choice was binary, Norway or Canada; what you can see from the declaration is that there is a spectrum.”
A final provision in the withdrawal agreement was also resolved on Thursday, allowing for allowing a one-off extension to the Brexit transition period “for up to one or two years” from December 2020 to December 2022 at the latest – which would be six months after the next general election is due.
May will return to Brussels on Saturday to meet Juncker, prompting concerns from Germany and at least five other member states at a meeting of EU ambassadors that she could try to seek further concessions, given the outcry in the Commons.
The German ambassador told Weyand: “We need to put a lid on this pot,” as EU diplomats reiterated that their leaders, including Angela Merkel, were not willing to reopen the withdrawal agreement or the political declaration for further talks at Sunday’s summit.
May’s deal was backed on Monday by the Confederation of British Industry, but embarrassingly for the prime minister, in emails inadvertently shared with ITV News on Thursday, CBI bosses admitted: “It’s not a good deal.”
Jeremy Corbyn told the Commons that the declaration was “a testament to the failure of the Tories’ bungled negotiations” and that it breached both May’s red lines for the talks, and his party’s six tests for support.
“The prime minister’s red lines have been torn up, cabinet resignations have racked up, and Chequers has been chucked,” said the Labour leader. “This is a vague menu of options. It is not a plan for the future and is not capable of bringing our country together.”