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UK's May defends Brexit deal in cabinet showdown
[LONDON] British Prime Minister Theresa May defended her draft divorce deal before a deeply divided cabinet on Wednesday, putting the fate of Brexit and her leadership at stake.
The embattled leader began one of the biggest days of her political career by telling a raucous session of parliament that she had secured the best deal Britain could get.
"What we have been negotiating is a deal that does deliver on the vote of the British people," she told MPs in her first public comments since EU and UK negotiators finally settled on a draft Tuesday.
The framework agreement capped a year-and-a-half of negotiations aimed at unwinding nearly 46 years of British EU membership.
Suffering economic uncertainty in the wake of the global financial crisis and fearing an influx of migrants, Britons voted by a 52-48 margin in June 2016 to break from Brussels.
Should Mrs May survive a marathon cabinet session that stretched into Wednesday evening in which ministers were expected to either back the draft or quit, Britain and the bloc will hold a Brexit summit on November 25.
Highlighting the immensity of the moment, the pound lost nearly one percent of its value within minutes of an announcement by government minister Nick Hurd that Mrs May would be making "no press statement" after the cabinet session ends.
Sterling later recovered on a clarification from Downing Street that she will be giving one after all - and then another to parliament on Thursday - although it was still volatile because of rumours about an imminent no-confidence vote in May.
Appearing before the House of Commons earlier Wednesday, Mrs May confronted the anger of both those who want a cleaner break with Brussels and those who think Brexit is a disaster.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party who is seeking early elections, called the entire negotiations process "shambolic".
"This government spent two years negotiating a bad deal that will leave the country in an indefinite half-way house," he said.
And Conservative Party MP Peter Bone, a leading eurosceptic, accused Mrs May of "not delivering the Brexit people voted for".
"Today you will lose the support of many Conservative MPs and millions of voters," he warned the British leader.
'SELLS OUT THE COUNTRY'
Angry Brexit supporters and critics rallied outside Mrs May's office in Downing Street as she tried to get her disgruntled ministers to line up behind the deal.
"It sells out the country completely. We will be a vassal state of the EU," said Lucy Harris, who founded the Leavers of London group.
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 Mrs 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 expected to be briefed about the deal by Mrs May late Wednesday, warning that "there will be consequences" if the leaks were true.
An EU official told AFP that the final deal includes a so-called "backstop" in which the whole United Kingdom will remain in a customs arrangement with the EU.
Northern Ireland would have special status under the proposals, meaning that some checks may be required between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country.
The reported arrangement did not go 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.
The talks were stuck for months on how to avoid border checks between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, if and until London strikes a new trade deal with Brussels.
The deal reportedly allows for a review mechanism that Britain could use to try to leave the backstop arrangement - a key demand of Conservative eurosceptics.
Former Tory party leader William Hague warned Brexiteers that they could sabotage the whole process if they failed to back May's plan.
"If they vote down a deal because they are not happy with the details, the consequences may be that Brexit never happens," he said on the radio.
The Evening Standard countered with a front page that mocked Mrs May's oft-repeated phrase about Britain taking back control of its destiny, declaring: "EU takes back control."