Prime Minister Theresa May said tonight that her Cabinet had agreed the draft Brexit withdrawal agreement, in a development welcomed by the Gibraltar Government.
“The collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration,” Mrs May said outside her Downing Street residence after a five-hour cabinet meeting.
“I firmly believe that the draft withdrawal agreement is the best that could be negotiated,” Mrs May said as protesters shouted anti-Brexit slogans from the end of the street.
“This is a decisive step which enables us to move on and finalise the deal in the days ahead.”
“These decisions were not taken lightly but I believe it is a decision that is firmly in the national interest.”
She concluded: “I firmly believe, with my head and my heart, that this is a decision which is in the best interests of the United Kingdom.”
The move clears the way for a special Brexit summit in Brussels – probably on November 25 – for EU leaders to approve the deal, followed by a crucial Commons vote in which MPs will hold Britain’s future in their hands.
But the Prime Minister still faces tough opposition from MPs across all parties in the Commons.
The draft document sparked waves of condemnation from Brexit-backing Tory backbenchers, who fear it will commit the UK to remaining indefinitely within a customs union with the EU and unable to forge its own trade deals elsewhere.
Brexit campaigners in Mrs May’s Conservative Party accused her of surrendering to the EU and said they would vote down the deal.
That would be a bad outcome not just for the UK but for Gibraltar too, according to Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.
Mr Picardo was in London at the head of a Gibraltar delegation meeting Cabinet ministers to continue negotiations over Gibraltar’s withdrawal from the EU.
If the UK Parliament failed to back Mrs May’s agreement, “…there would be no deal and that would be very bad indeed for Gibraltar,” Mr Picardo said.
“Anyone who genuinely cares for Gibraltar will want to see a deal as important as this is for Gibraltar to prosper.”
“I think this is potentially an agreement that certainly works for the United Kingdom and therefore certainly works for Gibraltar.”
“It is important that an agreement is reached because for Gibraltar the alternative no deal is not as good as what is potentially on the table.”
As news broke of the cabinet backing for the deal, Mr Picardo welcomed the development but said there were still big challenges ahead.
“This is a hugely important first step,” he told the Chronicle.
“There is still a long road ahead of us.”
The political drama in Westminster will continue this morning, with the Prime Minister due to make a statement to the House of Commons this morning.
There were scant details of the draft agreement available as this edition went to press yesterday, although it was expected to be published by the EU last night.
The document will contain a protocol on Gibraltar that will ensure the Rock’s inclusion in the terms of the deal and any transitional arrangements after March next year.
Mrs May’s plan is an attempt to forge a balance between those who want Britain to maintain close links to the world’s biggest trading bloc while having full control over issues such as immigration and judicial oversight.
“We will take back control of our borders, our laws and our money, leave the Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agricultural Policy, while protecting jobs, security and the integrity of the United Kingdom,” Mrs May said of the deal during Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament.
But Brexit campaigners in the Conservative Party, which for three decades has been divided over Europe, said it was a surrender to the EU and they would vote it down.
Speculation was rife that some ministers would resign over the deal and that Brexit supporters could call for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, perhaps as early as Thursday.
At the heart of Mrs May’s difficulties has been the so-called Northern Irish backstop, an insurance policy to avoid a return to controls between the British province and EU-member Ireland which could threaten the 1998 peace accord which ended 30 years of violence.
The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up Mrs May’s government, said the Prime Minister had repeatedly pledged to ensure Northern Ireland was treated in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom.
“If she decides to go against all of that, then there will be consequences,” DUP leader Arlene Foster said.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called it a “botched deal”.
MPs from all parties demanded the Prime Minister shows them the 585-page text of the draft Brexit deal.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mrs May pledged to show MPs analysis and provide briefings ahead of a meaningful vote in the Commons.
And the Gibraltar delegation’s presence in Whitehall for a pre-planned meeting of the Joint Ministerial Council on Brexit and Gibraltar led to questions too in the Commons.
SNP deputy Westminster leader Kirsty Blackman raised a point of order s to ask why the Chief Minister had been briefed by the Europe Minister but the Scottish Government had not.
She said: “How do I bring a minister here to ask why the Scottish Government has not yet seen the final deal, but Gibraltar has?”
In fact, the Gibraltar Government had not yet seen the final draft deal.
Mr Picardo and deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia had met with Europe Minister Sir Alan Duncan, Brexit Minister Robin Walker, and the economic secretary at the Treasury, John Glen, at the Cabinet Office just hours before Mrs May briefed her ministers on the draft withdrawal agreement.
But that meeting was a continuation of the work of the Joint Ministerial Council on Gibraltar and Brexit.
“We only discussed the part of the agreement that relates to Gibraltar and which we have been directly involved in negotiating,” Mr Picardo said of his meeting with Sir Alan Duncan.
“We have not yet seen the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement, other than those parts that were previously been published.”
Mr Picardo was expecting to be briefed on the agreement and the political declaration on the future framework tonight or during the course of Thursday.
During the meeting, the Gibraltar and UK Governments also discussed matters relating to the online gaming industry, the financial services industry in Gibraltar and continued access to the United Kingdom market after December 2020.
“And we are making great progress in respect of all those,” Mr Picardo said.
“The important thing today for me has been to just restate how fantastic the working relationship with the Government of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom Government has been and how fully involved we have been in all of this process in so far as it relates to Gibraltar.”
The developments in London were being closely monitored by the Opposition in Gibraltar.
Before flying to the UK, Mr Picardo and Dr Garcia briefed their Gibraltar cabinet colleagues and the Gibraltar Parliament’s Brexit select committee on what was expected to unfold this week.
The Chief Minister also briefed Keith Azopardi, the Leader of the GSD, on Gibraltar’s Brexit negotiations to date.
“The GSD will carefully consider the final versions of the draft Withdrawal Agreement and Gibraltar specific documents once they are made public to evaluate whether the deal is good for Gibraltar,” Mr Azopardi tweeted yesterday.