Theresa May is returning to Westminster facing ministerial resignations after she left talks with EU leaders over her Brexit deal empty-handed.
With another vote in the Commons due next week, a minister said colleagues on Ms May’s own front bench are ready to quit if there is no breakthrough in talks with Brussels.
She was told on Thursday by a string of EU chiefs that the controversial backstop in the withdrawal agreement was not up for negotiation – and that she should instead change her red lines to win Labour support and take the deal over the line.
In a climbdown that is likely to enrage hardline Brexiteers, she also abandoned instructions from Tory MPs to drop the backstop entirely, clarifying in meetings with EU leaders that she was instead seeking “changes” to it.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told the prime minister on Thursday that the EU27 would not reopen the withdrawal agreement – describing it as “a carefully balanced compromise between the European Union and the UK, in which both sides have made significant concessions to arrive at a deal”.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, said after his meeting with the PM there was “still no breakthrough in sight” and that “talks will continue”, while the European parliament’s Brexit chief Guy Verhofstadt warned: “For us, an all-weather backstop is absolutely key and if there are problems with the backstop as it is absolutely seen, our proposal is to try and solve the problem in the political declaration.”
He added: “Mrs May today in the meeting assured us that there will be a backstop.
“What she said already in Belfast: there’s no question to remove the backstop, because that is absolutely necessary for securing and safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement, internal market and peace process,” he said.
But back in Westminster Stephen Hammond, a health minister, set a deadline of the next crunch Commons votes – on 14 February – for the prime minister to show firm evidence of progress to prevent the “catastrophe” of crashing out of the EU.
“The opportunity to ensure that no deal doesn’t happen by mistake and the opportunity to block that is there,” he told The House magazine in an interview.
“I have no doubt that many of my colleagues and I will take that opportunity if that appears to be the eventuality.”
The warning from the anti-no-deal ministers came as the government confirmed MPs will be given a fresh opportunity to seize control of Brexit policy next week, by tabling amendments to a No 10 motion.
The showdown is almost certain not to be a second “meaningful vote” on the deal itself, with Ms May bogged down by Brussels’ refusal to make changes to the Irish backstop.
Instead, pro-EU MPs will table a repeat of the Yvette Cooper amendment – to force Ms May to seek an extension of Article 50, if she cannot pass her deal – which was defeated by 23 votes last week.
Cabinet ministers are likely to push again for a free vote, after Greg Clark, the business secretary, said exporters faced a deadline of next week to know a no deal will be averted.
Mr Hammond – a staunch opponent of a hard Brexit until he joined the government in November – pointed out that the Commons had already agreed that “no deal is a calamitous outcome”.
Asked if he would resign to vote for the equivalent of the Cooper amendment on 14 February, he replied: “We will all have to look into our conscience at that stage.
“But I don’t think anyone can doubt my principles and what my view would be if that is the last opportunity.”
He added: “I’ve always argued for what is commonly termed as a soft Brexit. I still believe that no deal would be a catastrophe for this country.”
Mr Hammond is the second minister to set a deadline of next week for firm progress towards passing a deal, after Richard Harrington, the business minister, did the same.
Meanwhile, senior No 10 officials denied the prime minister had told Mr Verhofstadt that her energies were focused on “changes“ to the backstop, rather than replacing it – as she whipped Tory MPs to support last week.
Pointing to a possible time limit, an exit mechanism and technology-based “alternative arrangements”, one said: “There are three options and we continue to work on all of those.”
In a joint statement the British government and European Commission said Ms May had had a “robust but constructive” meeting with president Mr Juncker, and that the pair would meet again before the end of the month.
The two negotiating teams have been formally stood down since the withdrawal agreement was agreed between the two sides last year, with the EU saying it did not anticipate any further meetings. But with MPs in Westminster blocking the ratification of the agreement, officials will begin meeting again.
The joint statement said the gathering was “held in a spirit of working together to achieve the UK’s orderly withdrawal from the EU”.
Theresa May is said to have explained the situation in Westminster to Mr Juncker and raised “various options for dealing with these concerns”.
But Mr Juncker responded by underlining that the EU27 would not reopen the withdrawal agreement – describing it as ”a carefully balanced compromise between the European Union and the UK, in which both sides have made significant concessions to arrive at a deal”.
However, he “expressed his openness to add wording to the political declaration agreed by the EU27 and the UK in order to be more ambitious in terms of content and speed when it comes to the future relationship between the European Union and the UK”, according to the read-out of the meeting.
The statement concluded: “The discussion was robust but constructive. Despite the challenges, the two leaders agreed that their teams should hold talks as to whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council. The prime minister and the president will meet again before the end of February to take stock of these discussions.”
Ms May’s meeting Mr Tusk comes a day after he caused a row by warning that there was a “special place in hell” for those who promoted Brexit without even a basic plan for how to actually enact it. Speaking after her meeting she said: “I’ve raised with President Tusk the language that he used yesterday which was not helpful and caused widespread dismay in the UK. The point I made to him is that we should both be working to ensure we should deliver a close relationship between the UK and EU in the future and that’s what he should be focusing on.”
Speaking on her way back to London, she added: “I’ve had a good series of meetings today. We’ve had robust discussions but they’ve been constructive.
“What I’ve set out is our clear position, that we must secure legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement to deal with the concerns that parliament has over the backstop. Taking that, changes with the backstop, together with the other work we’re doing on workers’ rights and other issues, will deliver a stable majority in parliament. That’s what I’ve continued to push for.”
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