One furious senior minister was said to be "aggressive" as she clashed with the PM before being talked around at the end of a mammoth five-hour meeting in No10.
Cabinet sources said 11 members of Mrs May's top team were critical of the EU withdrawal agreement but were won over by fears that it "was this or Jeremy Corbyn".
Michael Gove was the only Brexiteer to speak in positive terms about the deal, but Esther McVey seemed "on the brink" by the end of the summit.
Insiders said the Pensions Secretary was very "emotional" and some colleagues considered her behaviour "aggressive" toward the PM.
She demanded a formal vote was taken and recorded in official minutes, and was "very unhappy" when Mrs May rebuffed her idea.
Meanwhile Penny Mordant repeated her pleas for Ministers to be released from collective responsibility and given a free vote on the deal in the Commons.
Mrs May moved to sooth Liam Fox's fears that trade deals will not be able to done with other countries for years to come, but sources said "Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid" were "less convinced and not as gullible".
The PM cancelled her planned press conference to trumpet her draft of the deal as the meeting ran three hours late.
Aides were said to have a "watch list" of Brexiteers thought most likely to quit ahead of the crunch Cabinet showdown.
After the top team agreed to back the proposal, it emerged this evening:
- The mood was said to be "much, much worse" than after the Chequers deal in the summer which led to Boris Johnson and David Davis quitting
- Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote to Tory MPs urging them to vote down the deal
- Other Brexit-backing backbenchers predicted Mrs May could lose her job within days
- But Eurocrats spoke out in favour of the deal, saying it would trigger the next stage of Brexit talks
But although the PM has won the battle over her Brexit deal, she could still lose the war – with MPs warning they could block the plan when it reaches Parliament next month.
Mrs May now faces a mighty showdown with her own backbenchers and the DUP – starting with a crunch meeting with chief unionist Arlene Foster due to take place tonight.
Tory Brexiteers have even threatened to bring Mrs May down for good by forcing a vote of confidence in her leadership.
The mood after tonight's meeting was said to be "much, much worse" than after the Chequers deal in the summer which led to Boris Johnson and David Davis quitting
Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote to Tory MPs urging them to vote down the deal.
Other Brexit-backing backbenchers predicted Mrs May could lose her job within days
But Eurocrats spoke out in favour of the deal, saying it would trigger the next stage of Brexit talks
Speaking in Downing Street tonight, the PM warned that Britain faces a choice between her deal, a No Deal outcome or no Brexit at all, saying: "I firmly believe that the draft withdrawal agreement was the best that could be negotiated, and it was for the Cabinet to decide whether to move on in the talks.
"The choices before us were difficult, particularly in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop.
"But the collective decision of Cabinet was that the Government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration.
"This is a decisive step which enables us to move on and finalise the deal in the days ahead.
"These decisions were not taken lightly but I believe it is a decision that is firmly in the national interest."
Hinting at the trouble she's likely to face from rebellious MPs, Mrs May added: "I know there will be difficult days ahead. This is a decision that will come under intense scrutiny and that is entirely as it should be and entirely understandable."
She concluded: "I believe that what I owe to this country is to take decisions in the national interest.
"I firmly believe with my head and my heart this is a decision which is in the best interests of our entire United Kingdom."
Mrs May insisted that blocking her deal would mean "going back to square one, with more division and more uncertainty".
And she promised to present the deal to Parliament tomorrow morning in a formal Commons statement.
A number of pro-Brexit ministers were previously feared to be on the brink of walking out over the deal.
The main point of contention is the Irish backstop – a mechanism which will keep the border if the two sides fail to strike a comprehensive trade deal in time.
Arlene Foster is expected to have warned Mrs May that the DUP could pull the plug on the deal which sees them prop her up in power.
Senior unionist Sammy Wilson blasted: "We fought against a terrorist campaign to stay within the UK, we're not going to let the EU break Northern Ireland just as we didn't let the IRA do so."
What's in the Brexit deal thrashed out by Theresa May?
BRITAIN will be able to try get out of the controversial customs backstop after six months – but only if the EU or an independent panel sign it off.
In a move that infuriated Brexiteers, the draft withdrawal agreement contained no fix date or “unilateral” way for the UK to collapse the controversial insurance measure that will keep Britain locked to Brussels trade rules for years.
But in a win for Britain, the insurance option will be UK-wide rather than simply keeping Northern Ireland bound to Brussels.
It reads: "Until the future relationship becomes applicable, a single customs territory between the EU and the UK shall be established."
Before the backstop kicks in, an option to extend the 21-month transition period can be discussed by both parties in July 2020.
But once it kicks in, either side have to give six months' notice to bring it to an end – and if both sides do not agree a new trade deal keeps the Northern Irish border open, then a five-strong panel of judges and experts will be called in.
THE Brexit agreement guarantees residence and social security rights to an estimated 3.5million EU nationals living in the UK.
And Brussels is thought to have made a similar pledge to the 1.2million or so British expats living on the Continent.
Theresa May had already declared that any EU citizen living in the UK could apply for "Settled Status" in Brexit Britain right up until the end of the "transition phase" on New Year’s Eve in 2020.
Those who arrive before 2021 can have temporary leave to remain while they build up the five years they need to apply for Settled Status.
Under the plans, the EU nationals will also have a “lifetime right” to bring their spouse, their parents and grandparents to the UK at any point.
EU nationals can also bring in girlfriends or boyfriends if they can prove they have been a “durable partner” for two years.
Britain had already controversially conceded it would follow EU case law in the run up to Brexit on any legal cases regarding EU nationals.
And it will take account of the views of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on citizens’ rights for up to eight years afterwards.
SOME £39billion of taxpayers’ cash will be handed over to Brussels in a ‘Financial Settlement’ agreed by Theresa May and her negotiating team.
Under the terms of the ‘Divorce Bill’, Britain will initially pay around £16billion – reflecting the EU membership fees for the post-Brexit transition phase next year and 2020.
The remainder is made up of obligations and legal commitments from the UK’s 45-year membership – such as part-funding Eurocrat officials’ pensions.
Under last night’s deal the EU will update the UK’s outstanding obligations by March 31 of each year – starting from 2022.
Any missed payments will accrue interest.
In return the UK will get cash back for its "assets" – such as its share of the European Investment Bank.
EUROPEAN judges will have the ultimate say on most disputes relating to the Withdrawal Agreement – making it one of the most contentious parts of the document.
A Joint Committee will be set up by the end of the transition period – comprising of two judges from each of the UK and EU and a fifth independent.
It will aim to resolve all disputes but if no mutually agreed solution is agreed on any individual dispute within three months then an arbitration panel will be set up to make a final decision.
But any dispute that involves a “concept” of EU law will go straight to the European Court of Justice to give a ruling on the question.
This will trigger fears that all contentious decisions will ultimately be ruled upon by European judges – because most of the withdrawal agreement could be interpreted to involve “a concept of union law” and therefore be deferred to the ECJ.
Within minutes of Mrs May revealing the deal had made it through the Cabinet, Jacob Rees-Mogg called on Brexiteer MPs to vote against it when it comes to the Commons.
He wrote in an open letter: "The proposed agreement will see the UK hand over £39billion to the EU for little or nothing in return."
The deal is "unacceptable to unionists", will "lock us into an EU customs union and EU laws" and is "profoundly undemocratic".
Mr Rees-Mogg added: "For these reasons I cannot support the proposed agreement in Parliament and would hope that Conservative MPs would do likewise."
Mark Francois, a senior member of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, warned Mrs May the deal could bring her time in office to an end.
He blasted: "A lot of colleagues are very unhappy with this deal. I would rule nothing out."
Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns said she was "dismayed and disgusted", adding: "The only way to save Brexit is a new leader."
Nadine Dorries said: "The Cabinet backing this deal is the quickest route to a leadership election."
And Nigel Farage tweeted: "Any cabinet member who is a genuine Brexiteer must now resign or never be trusted again, this is the worst deal in history."
But Eurocrats tonight spoke out in support of the deal and said it provided enough progress for the ongoing talks to move to the next stage – with a summit of European leaders taking place within a couple of weeks.
Chief negotiator Michel Barnier said it was a "decisive crucial step in concluding these negotiations".
He claimed the deal would lead to an "ambitious partnership, which we want, which is a free trade area based on regulatory and customs co-operation, in depth and with a level playing field".
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, wrote to European Council boss Donald Tusk officially recommending that the next stage should be triggered.
He said: "I look forward to our continued good co-operation with a view to bringing this important matter to a successful conclusion."
During Prime Minister's Questions this afternoon, the PM was assailed from all sides over her Brexit plans.
Jeremy Corbyn blasted: "After two years of bungled negotiations, from what we know of the Government's deal it's a failure in its own terms."
Tory Brexiteer Peter Bone told Mrs May: "You are not delivering the Brexit people voted for and today you will lose the support of many Conservative MPs and millions of voters across the country."
And Ken Clarke called on her to put Parliament first by keeping MPs in the loop – instead of hatching agreements behind closed doors.
Last night Cabinet ministers were called into Downing Street one by one to examine the details of the agreement.
What happens next after the Cabinet approves Brexit deal?
TOMORROW: Theresa May makes statement in the House of Commons in her first attempt to win the backing of MPs as a whole
NEXT FEW DAYS: EU diplomats study the text of the deal and flag up any problems
LATE NOVEMBER OR EARLY DECEMBER: EU leaders attend an emergency summit in Brussels, probably on November 25, where all 27 heads of government will sign off on the treaty
BEFORE CHRISTMAS: Parliament votes on the withdrawal agreement – PM faces moment of truth as she attempts to head off Brexiteer rebellion
FEBRUARY 2019: The European Parliament holds its own vote on the deal
MARCH 29, 2019: The UK officially leaves the EU – but nothing will change if the withdrawal agreement has been confirmed, because it will include a 21-month transition period
EARLY 2019: Talks begin in earnest on the final trade deal which will govern the future relationship between Britain and the EU
DECEMBER 31, 2020: The transition period ends, and Britain leaves the European single market and customs union
Irish PM Leo Varadkar earlier revealed an emergency EU summit was likely to take place on November 25 – just 11 days from now.
He told the Dail: "Should the UK Cabinet be in the position this afternoon to say it's content with the text, it is proposed that the commission taskforce would be in a position perhaps tonight to publish the text with the possibility or probability of an EU Council meeting around November 25."
He insisted the deal would safeguard the Good Friday Agreement and vowed to safeguard the rights of unionists in Northern Ireland.
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