Theresa May faced a storm of protest over a transition deal struck with Brussels after conceding a series of her high-profile Brexit demands and agreeing to the “back stop” plan of keeping Northern Ireland under EU law to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
After an intense few days of talks, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, lauded a provisional agreement on the terms of a 21-month period, ending on 31 December 2020, as a “significant” moment, giving businesses and citizens the reassurance they had demanded.
Under a joint withdrawal deal published on Monday, of which 75% is agreed, the UK will retain the benefits of the single market and customs union for “near enough to the two years we asked for”, Davis said, albeit while losing its role in any decision-making institutions.
Whitehall officials noted that Liam Fox, the secretary for international trade, would be allowed to sign new trade deals to come into force in 2021 and the UK could choose to be part the EU’s foreign policy and defence initiatives.
Legal certainty for UK businesses will only be in place once the agreement is signed and ratified – likely in 2019 – but the markets reacted well to the news, with sterling climbing to its highest level in three weeks.
Yet as details emerged of the extent of the British government’s acquiescence to the EU’s terms, on issues ranging from immigration to fisheries, senior Tory figures, including the former leader Iain Duncan Smith, turned their fire on Downing Street.
He told the BBC: “There does seem to be a real concern … It appears that at least through the implementation period nothing will change and I think that will be a concern and the government clearly has to deal with that because a lot of MPs are very uneasy about that right now.”
The failure of the prime minister to get agreement on her very public and insistent demand that Britain could treat EU citizens arriving during the period differently to those already in the country was a cause of particular embarrassment for May.
“British citizens and European citizens of the 27 who arrive during the transition period will receive the same rights and guarantees as those who arrived before the day of Brexit,” the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, told reporters during a joint press conference with Davis in Brussels.
News that the UK had also rolled over on the demand of Michael Gove, the environment secretary, for a renegotiation of the fishing quotas for the last year of the transition period was angrily denounced by Tories in Scotland.
The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, said: “That we now have to wait until 2020 to assume full control is an undoubted disappointment. Having spoken to fishing leaders today, I know they are deeply frustrated with this outcome.”
Douglas Ross, the Tory MP for Moray, said: “There is no spinning this as a good outcome. It would be easier to get someone to drink a pint of sick than try to sell this as a success.”
Scottish MPs concerned about fisheries were due to meet the prime minister for crisis talks on Tuesday.
The former Ukip leader Nigel Farage called for the prime minister’s removal from office, describing her as “Theresa the appeaser”.
In relation to Northern Ireland, Barnier told reporters the UK had agreed that the withdrawal agreement would retain a default solution to avoid a hard border under which the north and south of the island of Ireland would remain in regulatory alignment.
After the publication of the last draft of the 53,000 word agreement, including that back stop, May had insisted that no British prime minister could sign up to a text that included a proposition that could “threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea”.
The EU and Ireland had insisted, in response, that the “back stop” option was simply the translation of an agreement struck in a joint report between the UK and the European commission in December. That report suggested that regulatory alignment would be necessary if either a future trade deal or a bespoke technological solution failed to offer the same advantage of avoiding a hard border.
With the issue threatening to stall agreement on the transition period, a deal had been struck, Barnier said, although more work needed to be done. “We agree today that the back stop solution must form part of the legal text of the withdrawal agreement,” he told reporters.
The UK insists that although it has accepted that a back stop will be included in the final withdrawal agreement, it has not accepted the current wording proposed by the EU.
Downing Street wants inclusion in the text of its promise to avoid the need for border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, something Brussels says is a strictly domestic issue.
In a sign of the UK’s need to placate the EU over the issue, the prime minister, however, sent a letter to the European council president, Donald Tusk, reiterating her commitment to the joint report.
Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, said the UK’s proposals so far on avoiding a hard border would not be acceptable and he was pleased to have the “insurance policy” agreed in principle.
Although most Tory Brexiter backbenchers kept their responses muted, concerns were expressed.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chairs the European Research Group of backbenchers, called the transition agreement unsatisfactory and said it was “hard to see what points the government has won”.
He said ministers had given in on fishing rights, free movement and the “issue of sincere cooperation”, adding: “As one correspondent said, the government has rolled over without even having its tummy tickled.” But he called the progress “tolerable if the end state is a clean Brexit”.
Campaigners for Britons in Europe expressed concern about the draft withdrawal deal. Jane Golding, the chair of British in Europe, said the draft excluded any reference to their continued right to freedom of movement to enable cross-border commuting or provision of services in another country or to people in another country.
“As things stand, after Brexit, English cheddar will have more free movement rights than we will,” said Golding.