UK prime minister has 'a huge mountain to climb' as Brexit battle lines are drawn over draft deal

  • Theresa May has to get the draft deal approved by a majority in Parliament.
  • That will be no easy task, particularly as there is already talk that committed Brexiteers in parliament are mounting a mutiny against the U.K leader and the draft agreement.
  • The draft withdrawal agreement is controversial for politicians in both the Remain and pro-Brexit camps.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May persuaded most of her senior ministers to back the draft Brexit agreement that has finally been struck with the EU — now all she has to do get it approved by a largely hostile Parliament.

That will be no easy task and May could easily come unstuck; there is already talk that committed Brexiteers in Parliament are mounting a mutiny against the U.K leader and the draft agreement. By lunchtime Thursday, notable Euroskeptic lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg said that a number of letters of no confidence had been submitted which could potentially force a vote within the ruling Conservative Party on her leadership.

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab resigned on Thursday, commenting on Twitter that he "cannot in good conscience support the terms proposed for our deal with the EU." That announcement was followed by the resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, also over the draft deal. Both ministers are keen Brexiteers. Sterling and London's FTSE 100 index fell on the news. Several junior ministers resigned earlier.

"Theresa May has got a huge mountain to climb in Parliament," Kallum Pickering, a senior U.K. economist at Berenberg, told CNBC Thursday.

"This is the deal that can probably keep her in government, keep her government in power and possibly get through the (House of Commons — the U.K.'s primary chamber of Parliament) but that is not certain," he told CNBC's "Capital Connection."

May held a five-hour meeting of her senior lawmakers (her Cabinet) on Wednesday and announced at the end that, "the collective decision of Cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration," and said it was the best deal that could be negotiated.

"When you strip away the detail, the choice before us was clear: this deal, which delivers on the vote of the 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," she said.

In short, the draft withdrawal agreement, which runs to 585 pages, envisages the U.K. and EU agreeing a trade deal by the end of 2020, during a 21-month transition period after Brexit – although this can be extended if more time is needed.

If there is no trade agreement, the much-vaunted and controversial "backstop" could kick in, this would essentially mean the U.K. stays within a temporary EU-U.K. "single customs territory" for a limited (but unspecified) amount of time. The "backstop" is designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland, which no one wants to see.

It also includes commitments over U.K. citizens' rights after Brexit, a £39 billion ($50.7 billion) "divorce bill" and more details about the proposed transition period after Britain's departure on March 2019.

Courting MPs

May made a statement to the country's politicians in Parliament on Thursday morning in which she gave a spirited defense of the draft deal and sought to calm nerves, saying it "puts us closer to a Brexit deal" but wasn't the final deal.

She said delivering Brexit "involves difficult choices for all of us," adding that voting against the deal would put the country back to square one.

"The choice is clear, we can choose to leave with no deal, risk no Brexit at all or choose to unite and support the best deal that could be negotiated," she said.

She will have to fight harder to win over MPs (Members of Parliament) that are wavering on the deal, however.

Parliament is expected to vote on the deal in December and May needs 320 votes out of a possible 639 votes (the House of Commons has 650 MPs but 11 of those do not take part in voting) to get the deal approved. May does not have a Commons majority, so she will have to rely on MPs from other parties to vote for the deal.

With a small but influential group of MPs within her own party rebelling against the deal, and several other parties from all sides — the staunchly pro-EU Scottish National Party, the largely pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland and the more equivocal Labour party voicing their disagreement with the deal. Although it's hard to gauge how individual MPs within those parties will choose to vote.

Berenberg's Pickering said May would now be "courting" MPs from the Labour party and Liberal Democrats and her Chief Whip, whose unenviable job it is to ensure that members of the party vote as the party leadership desires, will be trying to persuade the Northern Irish DUP to accept the deal.

The party has already expressed its opposition to the deal, which would see Northern Ireland stay aligned to some EU rules long term in order to avoid border checks.

Smelling blood

Some lawmakers have argued that the deal leaves the U.K. abiding with EU rules but without the power to have a say on them. As such, a rebellion is mounting against the deal but whether it's enough to topple the prime minister is debateable.

Prominent members of Parliament and influential Brexiteers, the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Rees-Mogg, have called the deal "as bad as it could possibly be" and "rotten," respectively.

Berenberg's Pickering said that Brexiteers and opposition backbenchers, could smell blood. "They want to get rid of Theresa May, they think this deal will disappear if Theresa May disappears. So expect over the next few days a lot of talk against May and maybe a confidence vote," he said, adding that there was a "moderate" chance of such a scenario.

Enda Kenny, who served as Irish leader from 2011 to 2017, told CNBC that he felt sympathy towards May.

"Prime Minister May has shown considerable conviction and courage in actually putting all of these issues ... to her Cabinet," he told CNBC's Joumanna Bercetche on Thursday. "In fairness to Theresa May, she's put up with a lot of backtalk, a lot of resignations, a lot of issues that people said she wouldn't be able to get through. It's a matter now for the MPs in Parliament," he said.

The European Council has said it will convene for a special summit on November 25 that is dedicated to finalizing the terms of Britain's departure from the EU. Whatever the EU states decide, ultimately if the U.K. Parliament rejects the deal the Brexit process will be thrown into disarray.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of Europe at Eurasia Group, said the odds of getting the vote through Parliament were not good.

"May is counting on her deal to transform the political mood and, crucially, the parliamentary arithmetic; however, the numbers look stacked heavily against her, so for now we believe her deal is unlikely to garner a majority in the House of Commons," he said in a note Wednesday evening.

He added that "many MPs will agonize ahead of such a momentous vote — probably the most important one many will ever cast."