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

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May persuaded 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.

“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.

May is expected to make a statement to the country’s politicians in Parliament on Thursday morning. She will have to fight hard 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.

Resignations within May’s own Cabinet cannot be ruled out despite the prime minister saying Wednesday evening that there was “collective” approval of the deal. There have been multiple reports in the U.K. media of criticism from some Cabinet members. A junior minister for Northern Ireland, Shailesh Vara, announced his resignation on Thursday, commenting on Twitter that the draft deal on offer leaves the U.K. “in a half-way house with no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign nation.”

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.

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 Jacob Rees-Mogg, have called the deal “as bad as it could possibly be” and “rotten,” respectively.

There are now widespread reports that Brexiteers could try to force a confidence vote in the prime minister.

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.

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.”

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