Theresa May has come home from Brussels empty-handed and without hope of further negotiations over the Irish backstop, with the failure to achieve any kind of breakthrough leaving her brutally exposed.
Plans to work over Christmas on a legal guarantee over the temporary nature of the backstop had run into a brick wall, EU officials said, despite May’s claim that she would be holding further talks “in the coming days”.
Brussels sources claimed May was just keeping up a pretence that the legal guarantee she had promised rebellious Tory MPs during this week’s leadership challenge was still on the cards.
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Without clear evidence that she has made progress, May faces mounting jeopardy in Westminster, with Labour seriously considering tabling a vote of no confidence before Christmas, if it believes the prime minister’s DUP partners might support it.
Jeremy Corbyn accused May on Friday of “dangerously running down the clock”.
“The last 24 hours have confirmed that Theresa May’s Brexit deal is dead in the water. The prime minister has utterly failed in her attempts to deliver any meaningful changes to her botched deal,” he said.
One shadow cabinet member said the moment at which Labour would table a no-confidence vote was getting “much, much closer”, but said it would depend on the stance of the DUP. “We are watching like hawks,” he added.
Some of May’s allies also fear renegade Brexiters from the right wing of the Tory party could throw their weight behind Labour in the hope that a no-confidence vote would result in a more Brexit-friendly Conservative being installed in her place.
The work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, has called for MPs across the political divide to build a Brexit consensus, warning Britain’s departure from the EU is “in danger of getting stuck”. Writing in the Daily Mail, Rudd said it is possible Theresa May will ultimately be unable to persuade enough of her own MPs to back her deal, suggesting it is time to “abandon outrage and accusations” and “try something different”.
Rudd said a “practical, sensible and healing approach” was needed for MPs to coalesce around a deal to avert the danger of Britain crashing out of the EU.
The cabinet minister is the most senior Conservative so far to suggest support may need to be won from outside the Tory-DUP alliance in order to get a deal over the line in the Commons.
In Brussels on Friday, EU leaders insisted they would not do any more to sweeten the Brexit deal containing the backstop that 100 Tory MPs want her to ditch.
The European council president, Donald Tusk, spoke of his respect for May but he was unable to hide the fact that he could not give the prime minister what she had come for.
“I have no mandate to organise any further negotiations,” Tusk said. “We have to exclude any kind of reopening our negotiations on the withdrawal agreement. But of course we will stay here in Brussels, and I am always at Prime Minister Theresa May’s disposal.”
The prime minister’s Brexit aide Olly Robbins had been holding secret negotiations since Monday over a two-stage plan to secure the legal guarantee that Downing Street believed could turn MPs in its favour.
But leaders ripped up a prepared script on Thursday night in which they would have offered both warm words and the promise of further assurances in January.
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The prime minister had been seeking a “joint interpretative instrument” that would put a duty on both sides to try to get out of the Irish backstop within 12 months of it coming into force.
Member states led by France and Ireland lined up to reject further concessions, warning that May’s deal appeared doomed to failure whatever was offered. They instead reiterated that they did not want to trigger the backstop, and that if it did come into force it would be a short-term arrangement.
Asked three times whether the UK could get further concessions or legally binding assurances that go beyond the current agreement, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, offered May no succour.
“The 27 member states have given assurances. They are contained in the conclusions of yesterday evening,” she told reporters. “So that is our position, that is what we have put on the table and now we expect Great Britain to respond.”
With Downing Street’s plan in tatters, the EU’s leaders instead turned their fire on the House of Commons for showing the prime minister a lack of respect, as they sought to convince MPs to back the deal.
“We have treated Prime Minister May with the greatest respect, all of us, and we really appreciate the efforts by the prime minister to ratify our common agreement,” Tusk said. “My impression is that in fact we have treated prime minister May with a much greater empathy and respect than some MPs, for sure.”
Earlier in the day, May had confronted Juncker, the European commission president, accusing him of calling her “nebulous” in a press conference he had held on Thursday evening. A TV camera captured the moment and lip readers said that the clearly angry prime minister had said: “What did you call me? You called me nebulous.”
A defensive Juncker tried to deny he used the word, saying: “No I didn’t, no I didn’t” – although he had used the word when he had criticised the British negotiating position the night before.
Juncker said the row had been a misunderstanding. He said he had been describing the “overall state of the debate in Britain”. “I was following the debate in the house and I can’t see where the British parliament is heading at and that’s why I was saying it’s nebulous,” he said.
Sour moments dominated the two-day gathering, with a string of EU leaders complaining about British MPs and the Brexit standoff at Westminster. Many questioned whether it would be worth making further concessions to the UK as suggested by May because they would not be accepted.
One person who heard May’s presentation at the summit on Thursday said she struggled to make a consistent and coherent case, reinforcing their decision to dig in, and at one point even suggested EU leaders show her some Christmas goodwill.
On Friday, May said she still hoped to obtain “further clarification” from Europe. She told reporters she had had “a robust discussion” with Juncker about his comments at the press conference and said she had been “crystal clear” about the assurances she was seeking.
The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said the EU was prepared to offer the UK “explanations, assurances” over the Brexit deal, but “there are limitations”. He said there could be nothing “to contradict or render inoperable the withdrawal agreement”, which contains the backstop.
Critically, he said the EU could commit to its “best endeavours” in starting a free trade deal by a given date, but it would “not be possible to say that in law” because trade talks were too complicated to tie down to a fixed timetable.
Earlier in the day, Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, which is supposed to prop up May’s government, said May “has promised to get legally binding changes”. She said pushback from the EU was unsurprising and added: “The key question is whether the PM will stand up to them or whether she will roll over as has happened previously.”
Steve Baker, a leading figure in the Tory hard-Brexit European Research Group, questioned whether May was an effective negotiator after the claims said she had struggled to spell out precisely what she wanted. “How can Theresa May stay in office if she cannot articulate what she wants for the UK when it really counts?” Baker said.
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