Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has told BBC News he quit the cabinet over “fatal flaws” in the UK’s draft Brexit agreement with the EU.
And he said the UK should be ready to risk a no-deal Brexit in the face of EU “blackmail”.
Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey and junior Brexit minister Suella Braverman have also quit.
It comes hours after Theresa May announced that she had secured the backing of her cabinet for the deal.
Chief whip Julian Smith said the prime minister “will not be bullied” into changing course.
The prime minister is currently making a Commons statement on the Brexit agreement, telling MPs it was not a final agreement, but brings the UK “close to a Brexit deal”.
She said it would allow the UK to leave the EU “in a smooth and orderly way” on 29 March, to laughter and shouts of “resign”.
Mrs May told MPs the agreement would deliver the Brexit people voted for and allow the UK to take back control of its “money, laws and borders”.
But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “This is not the deal the country was promised and Parliament cannot and I believe will not accept a false choice between this bad deal and no deal.”
Who has resigned so far and why?
Dominic Raab – a Leave supporter who was promoted to the cabinet to replace David Davis when he quit in protest at Mrs May’s Brexit plans – is the most high-profile minister to quit the government.
He was closely involved in drafting the 585-page document, which sets out the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU.
He told the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg: “I’ve been fighting for a good Brexit deal but the terms proposed to the cabinet yesterday [Wednesday] I think had two major and fatal flaws.
“The first is that the terms being offered by the EU threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom and the second is that they would lead to an indefinite if not permanent situation where we’re locked into a regime with no say over the rules being applied, with no exit mechanism.
“I think that would be damaging for the economy but devastating for public trust in our democracy.”
He said Theresa May needed a Brexit secretary who “will pursue the deal that she wants to put to the country with conviction”.
“I don’t feel I can do that in good conscience,” he added.
He said he held Mrs May in “high esteem” but “I do think we need to change course on Brexit”.
And he said the government should be willing to risk a no-deal Brexit in the face of what he described as the EU’s “blackmail”.
The alternative for the prime minister was her inevitable defeat in the Commons, he argued.
Asked if he would put himself forward for leader if the government falls apart, he did not rule it out but said it would be “irresponsible” to be talking about that now.
In her resignation letter, Esther McVey told Mrs May the agreement does not “honour the result of the referendum, indeed it does not meet the tests you set from the outset of your premiership”.
“We have gone from no deal is better than a bad deal to any deal is better than no deal,” she added.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a ministerial aide at the education department, has also quit, as has Ranil Jayawardena, a ministerial aide at the justice department.
Northern Ireland minister Shailesh Vara was the first to resign over Mrs May’s agreement on Thursday morning, saying, it “leaves the UK in a halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign nation”.
Will the PM be ousted?
Conservative Brexiteer MP Anne Marie Morris told BBC News she believed enough Tory MPs had now submitted letters of no-confidence in the prime minister to trigger a leadership contest.
She said there was enough time to install a new prime minister and change course on Brexit, adding: “Now is not the time for her leadership.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg – who heads an influential group of Tory Brexiteers – told MPs the prime minister had gone back on her previous commitments over Brexit and he asked her why he too should not submit a letter of no-confidence in her.
Mrs May told him “difficult choices have had to be made” – but she urged him to focus on the final trade deal the UK hoped to strike with the EU by the end of 2020, which she said would “deliver on the commitments I have made”.
Following this exchange and a meeting of his European Research Group, Mr Rees-Mogg submitted a letter of no-confidence to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee, increasing the chances of a leadership contest.
Downing Street said Mrs May would fight any no-confidence vote.
Asked by Labour MP Mike Gapes if it was time she “stood aside for someone else who could take this country forward in a united way”, Mrs May replied: “No.”
The opposition’s reaction
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “After two years of bungled negotiations, the government has produced a botched deal that breaches the prime minister’s own red lines and does not meet our six tests.
“The government is in chaos. Their deal risks leaving the country in an indefinite halfway house without a real say.”
The SNP’s leader at Westminster Ian Blackford said Mrs May was “trying to sell us a deal that is already dead in the water” and expressed outrage that Scotland was not mentioned once in the draft withdrawal agreement.
What is in the withdrawal agreement?
- commitments over citizens’ rights after Brexit – people will be able to work and study where they currently live and to be joined by family members
- a proposed 21-month transition period after the UK’s departure
- a “fair financial settlement” from the UK – also known as the £39bn “divorce bill”
But the controversial part relates to what will happen to the Irish border.
The agreement includes a “backstop” – a kind of safety net to ensure there is no hard border whatever the outcome of future trade talks between the UK and the EU.
If there is no trade deal in place by the end of the transition period, the backstop will mean that Northern Ireland would stay aligned to some EU rules on things such as food products and goods standards.
It would also involve a temporary single customs territory, effectively keeping the whole of the UK in the EU customs union.
Brexiteers do not like the prospect of potentially being tied to EU customs rules for years or even, as some fear, indefinitely.
And Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has said it will not tolerate anything that creates a new border down the Irish Sea and they will not vote for the agreement.
Setting out details of the arrangements for a possible “backstop”, Mrs May said: “I do not pretend that this has been a comfortable process, or that either we or the EU are entirely happy with some of the arrangements which have been included in it.”
But she added that “while some people might pretend otherwise, there is no deal which delivers the Brexit the British people voted for which does not involve this insurance policy”.
She insisted it was a last resort and would be time-limited.
What happens now?
The resignations came as European Council President Donald Tusk announced an emergency meeting of EU leaders in Brussels on 25 November, at which the withdrawal agreement and a political declaration on future relations will be finalised and formalised.
The BBC’s Brussels correspondent Adam Fleming said the UK and the EU will have to agree an ultimate end date for the post-Brexit transition period by the end of next week.
The transition period is due to end in 2020 and can be extended once by mutual agreement.
The text of the draft withdrawal agreement currently says the end date is “20XX”.
A senior EU official said the negotiators will have to fill in a specific year by 25 November’s summit.