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May vows to see Brexit through, despite wave of resignations and party acrimony

British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to reporters and took questions about a draft Brexit agreement at 10 Downing Street in London on Nov. 15. (Video: Reuters)

LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May faced a volley of cabinet resignations, a torrent of criticism from Parliament and talk of a leadership challenge Thursday, but she insisted that Britain would leave the European Union in March, deal or no deal, and that she would be the leader to “see this through.”

It was one of the most tumultuous days in recent British politics. Suddenly, everything hung in the balance. Not only was May’s future as leader unsure, but so too was the momentous decision to split from the continental bloc.

Some members of Parliament pleaded with May to stage a second “people’s vote” to give citizens a chance to rethink Brexit. Others decried her proposals as condemning Britain to years of unbreakable alliance with European rules and regulations — and failing to make good on the vow to “take back control” as the pro-Brexit campaign promised two years ago.

At risk is the possibility that if a deal isn’t finalized by the end of the year, Britain could “crash out” of the European Union in March with chaotic uncertainty that could devastate the British economy.

The day began with abandonment, as Dominic Raab abruptly resigned as Brexit secretary, saying he could not support the withdrawal agreement that he had helped negotiate and that May’s cabinet had approved the night before.

This was an especially stinging setback for May. Raab was her second Brexit secretary to quit. Following him out the door Thursday was another cabinet secretary, two junior ministers and three other Conservative lawmakers in government.

Then, for three grueling hours, May stood virtually alone in the parliamentary chamber, as members, including those from her own Conservative Party, denounced her Brexit plans as a weak capitulation, an act of naive folly or a catastrophe in the making.

British Prime Minister Theresa May responded to members of Parliament's questions and criticism of the proposed Brexit deal in the House of Commons on Nov. 15. (Video: Sarah Parnass/Reuters)

May later called an evening news conference at 10 Downing Street, where the very first question from the BBC was: “Is it not the case now that you are in office but you’re not really in power?”

May held fast to her script, saying she believes with “every fiber of my being” that her Brexit is the right one.

But even as she spoke, a leadership contest loomed. 

In one of the many dramatic moments of the day, Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg announced that he had submitted a formal letter stating he had “no confidence” in his prime minister. Rees-Mogg, who has been touted as a possible future leader of the Conservative Party and heads a pro-Brexit faction, said May’s deal was “worse than anticipated and fails to meet the promises given to the nation by the prime minister.”

To trigger a vote of no confidence against May, 48 Conservative lawmakers would have to submit letters calling for such a ballot. By evening, there was no announcement of that threshold being reached.

“Am I going to see this through? Yes,” May said at the news conference.

Public confidence in Brexit, too, has been wavering. Although Britain voted to leave the E.U. by 52 percent to 48 percent in June 2016, the latest polls show slightly more voters would prefer to remain. Surveys indicate that people are frustrated with how Brexit is being handled but still prefer May’s leadership over anyone else’s.

The prime minister said Thursday that the withdrawal agreement she negotiated with E.U. officials would get a vote from the leaders of the remaining 27 E.U. states in Brussels on Nov. 25.

The deal, which has been compared to the world’s most complex divorce settlement, lays out the billions of euros that Britain will pay to leave, what rights Europeans living in Britain will have after Brexit, and how a 21-month transition period will work. 

Approval in Brussels is nearly assured.

Far more challenging will be getting the deal through Parliament. British lawmakers are supposed to get their say in early December. 

May on Thursday predicted that the withdrawal agreement would pass but acknowledged the deal was weighed down by compromise.

“I know it’s been a frustrating process — it has forced us to confront some very difficult issues,” May conceded to Parliament. “But a good Brexit, a Brexit which is in the national interest, is possible. We have persevered and have made a decisive breakthrough.”

Such optimism was not visible in the chamber. Hardly anyone stood to support May, as the pound sterling plummeted on currency markets and the hashtag #BrexitShambles was trending.

Mark Francois, a Conservative lawmaker and top Brexiteer, said that by his calculations, 84 Conservative members — a number “going up by the hour” — would vote against the agreement. Adding to that, he said, “the Labour Party have made plain today that they will vote against this deal,” as will major parties from Northern Ireland and Scotland.

“It’s therefore mathematically impossible to get this deal through the House of Commons,” he said. “It’s dead on arrival.”

Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative lawmaker and pro-European, said, “It will be blindingly obvious to the entire country that the prime minister’s deal cannot pass this house.”

In his resignation letter, Raab said he could not support May’s plan because it treats Northern Ireland’s future trading and customs relations with the European Union in a way that “presents a very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom.”

He was referring to the deal’s “backstop” to prevent the reemergence of a hard border — and political tensions — on the island of Ireland. That insurance plan would keep Northern Ireland and, to a lesser degree Great Britain, in a European customs union if Britain and the E.U. fail to sign a future free-trade deal that preserves open borders in Ireland.

The rapid-fire resignations sent shudders through E.U. headquarters in Brussels, raising the possibility that May does not have the support she needs to pursue the softer Brexit she negotiated.

Raab’s resignation drew special derision in Europe. “Who negotiated those UK terms again . . .? Surely the #Brexit Minister had nothing to do with it and learned of the terms yesterday. . .? Oh wait,” tweeted Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament.

Officials in Brussels said it was unclear whether they could offer any changes that would satisfy London any more. “We still have a long road ahead of us on both sides,” said Michel Barnier, the E.U.’s chief negotiator.

European Council President Donald Tusk sounded resigned to frustration. “Since the very beginning, we have had no doubt that Brexit is a lose-lose situation, and that our negotiations are only about damage control.”

May, though, was still talking in terms of a win.

At the end of her news conference, one reporter asked about the prospects of her Brexit effort by using an extended metaphor about the game of cricket. 

“One of my cricket heroes was always Geoffrey Boycott,” May replied. “And what do you know about Geoffrey Boycott? Geoffrey Boycott stuck to it. And he got the runs in the end.” 

Michael Birnbaum and Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.

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