London | British Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to press on with her beleaguered Brexit deal, but she faces a mounting political crisis as senior ministerial resignations throw into doubt the chances of parliament passing the plan and fuel speculation of a leadership coup.
"Am I going to see this through? Yes," she told a press conference early on Friday (AEDT). "Leadership is about taking the right decisions, not the easy ones. ... I believe with every fibre of my being that the course I have set out is the right one for our country and all our people."
Earlier Mrs May had been rocked by the resignation of two cabinet ministers and two junior ministers, led unexpectedly by her Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab. His move came just hours after Mrs May won cabinet approval for her Brexit plan. More senior ministerial resignations were expected as night fell in London, which would plunge the prime minister further into crisis.
Her leadership already looked tenuous, even after she spent three hours defending the deal on the floor of Parliament on Thursday. Her mutinous Brexiteer backbench was unconvinced, and influential eurosceptic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg publicly threw his weight behind a leadership spill.
The tide of opposition to Mrs May and her plan sent shockwaves through the currency market, as the division and confusion ramp up the odds of Britain crashing out of the European Union without a deal on March 29 next year.
Sterling lost almost 1.8 per cent of its value against the US dollar by late afternoon on Thursday. The equity market was more sanguine, and British bond yields dropped sharply as investors looked for safety.
European leaders are also bracing for Britain's political crisis to end up in a disorderly Brexit. French Prime Minister Eduoard Philippe was quoted on the website of newspaper Le Figaro as saying his government would continue to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, as "nothing at this stage allows us to be sure that the agreement reached between negotiators will in the end be adopted".
Mr Raab took to Twitter to underline his "enduring respect" for Mrs May, but his resignation will embolden parliamentarians on all sides to vote against her deal.
Mrs May lacks a parliamentary majority, and Labour has again said it won't support her deal. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to push her into an election, and others in Labour hope that the fluid situation on the floor of parliament could end up with MPs deciding to support a second referendum.
The Conservative Brexiteers, meanwhile, have run out of patience with Mrs May. Mr Rees-Mogg said he would not stand for leadership himself but said the party had a wealth of talent, citing fellow Brexiteer Boris Johnson and Penny Mordaunt.
If 48 Conservative MPs submit a no-confidence letter to the chairman of the party's backbench committee, as Mr Rees-Mogg did on Thursday, a leadership spill is automatically triggered. The roll-call of resignations on Thursday included cabinet-level Work & Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, junior Brexit minister Suella Braverman and Northern Ireland minister Shailesh Vara.
In his resignation letter to Mrs May, Mr Raab attacked the deal for creating different regulatory regimes for Northern Ireland and the British mainland, and for restricting Britain's ability to quit the temporary customs union with the EU that is supposed to last until a new trade agreement is signed.
"I cannot reconcile the terms of the proposed deal with the promises we made to the country in our manifesto at the last election. This is, at its heart, a matter of public trust," he wrote.
But Mrs May stuck to her guns at her press conference and in her three hours on the floor of parliament. She said "voting against a deal would take us all back to square one", and urged MPs to look beyond the shortcomings of the transition period.
"What we agreed yesterday was not the final deal," Mrs May said. "It is a draft treaty that means we will leave the EU in a smooth and orderly way on 29 March 2019 and which sets the framework for a future relationship that delivers in our national interest."
She acknowledged that neither she nor Brussels were "entirely happy" with the 'backstop' provisions on Northern Ireland, which have extended into keeping Britain in a temporary customs union with the EU until at least the end of 2020.
"But while some might pretend otherwise, there is no deal which delivers the Brexit the British people voted for which does not involve this insurance policy."
Proponents of a second referendum believe their case is getting stronger. But it probably could not be held before March 29 – meaning a hard Brexit is still in prospect unless the EU grants an extension to the withdrawal process. It also prolongs the uncertainty, and fresh battlelines will be drawn over what question it might ask. If it doesn't result in a decision to reverse Brexit, it may do little to advance Britain from its current position.