LONDON — Following an early-morning volley of devastating resignations from her cabinet over her Brexit plans, Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament on Thursday afternoon that Britain will leave the European Union in March, deal or no deal.
For three punishing hours, May stood virtually alone and faced a torrent of criticism in the chambers as members of Parliament, including those from her own Conservative Party, denounced her Brexit plans as either a weak capitulation, an act of naive folly or a looming disaster.
Then afterwards, May called an evening press conference at 10 Downing Street, where the first question from the BBC reporter was: “Is it not the case now that you are in office, but you’re not really in power?”
At the news conference, as in Parliament, May stuck to her script — that she was providing the best possible Brexit that works for all of the United Kingdom.
But even as she spoke, a leadership contest loomed.
In one of the many dramatic moments of the day, Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg 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 gaggle, said May’s Brexit 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 have to submit letters calling for such a vote. By evening, that threshold had not been reached.
“Am I going to see this through? Yes,” May said during the news conference.
The day began with abandonment, when Dominic Raab abruptly resigned as Brexit secretary, saying he could not support the withdrawal agreement approved by May’s cabinet “collectively” the night before.
This was an especially stinging setback for May. Also quitting their posts was another cabinet secretary, two junior ministers and three other Conservative lawmakers who resigned from government or party posts. 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 her deal for a softer, slower-moving Brexit.
“I know it’s been a frustrating process — it has forced us to confront some very difficult issues,” May conceded before Parliament. “But a good Brexit, a Brexit which is in the national interest is possible. We have persevered and have made a decisive breakthrough.”
That optimistic optic was not visible in Parliament. Hardly anyone stood to support May, as the pound sterling plummeted on currency markets and the hashtag #Brexitshambles was trending.
Some members pleaded with May to stage a second “People’s Vote” to give citizens another 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 campaigns promised two years ago.
The prime minister said the draft withdrawal agreement, approved by her cabinet Wednesday night, will go to a vote by leaders of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union on Nov. 25.
Afterward, the British Parliament would get a “meaningful vote” on the deal, May said.
Lawmakers warned May that she will not be able to muster enough support for the exit plan when it comes before Parliament, most likely in early December.
Mark Francois, a Conservative lawmaker and top Brexiteer, said the arithmetic just wasn’t there. He said that by his calculations, 84 Conservatives — “and going up by the hour” — would vote against it. 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 wrote, “I cannot reconcile the terms of the proposed deal with the promises we made to the country in our manifesto at the last election.”
Specifically, 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.”
The resignation drew immediate derision from pro-E. U. voices in Brussels who have lamented the Brexit decision. Many Europeans have grown weary of the chaos over Brexit in Britain, where May’s own government is in constant crisis over its departure plans.
“Who negotiated those UK terms again . . .? Surely the #Brexit Minister had nothing to do with it and learned of the terms yesterday…..? Oh wait,” Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, wrote on Twitter.
E.U. officials involved in the negotiations said they were focused on the current deal and that it was unclear whether they could offer any changes that would satisfy London any more.
In Brussels, the E.U.’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier said, “We still have a long road ahead of us on both sides.”
European Council President Donald Tusk said, “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.”
Shailesh Vara, a Northern Ireland minister, also quit May’s government early Thursday, saying that her deal left Britain in a “halfway house” with “no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign nation.”
An hour after Raab quit, Esther McVey, Britain’s work and pensions minister, followed him out the door. “We have gone from no deal is better than a bad deal, to any deal is better than no deal,” she wrote in her letter.
McVey complained that May’s proposal means handing over $50 billion in exit dues “without getting anything in return.” She said, “It will trap us in a customs union, despite you specifically promising the British people we would not be. It will bind the hands of not only this, but future governments in pursuing genuine free trade policies.”
Political opponents were quick to pounce, with some predicting May’s demise.
Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, tweeted: “With Raab gone May becomes a goner. With May gone the Tories will not be able to find anyone to unite behind. And so the great unraveling begins.”
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said May must withdraw from her “half-baked” Brexit plan.
The draft agreement, negotiated by British and European Union officials, was a decisive step toward finalizing Britain’s departure from the European Union in March.
The agreement, 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.
If her critics succeed in gathering enough signatures to stage a Conservative party “no confidence” vote, May said she would fight the measure.
The prime minister also predicted that once members of Parliament had time to consider the alternatives — all of them bad, she said — they would come around to her plan, or face the ire of their constituents later.
May barely won a disastrous election bid in 2017, securing just enough votes to govern, as long as her Conservative Party aligned with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which May needs to prop up her minority government.
Sammy Wilson, a member of Parliament for the DUP, told TalkRadio on Wednesday that May’s plan “is not so much a deal as a double-cross.”
The DUP’s chief whip at Westminster, Jeffrey Donaldson, said May’s half-in, half-out plan “doesn’t give the United Kingdom as a whole the opportunity to do free-trade deals and to take control of its own future.”
For the past two years, the greatest debate over Brexit has not been waged between Brussels and London, but within May’s fractious government.
Michael Birnbaum and Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.