Theresa May’s hopes of getting EU leaders to help her push her Brexit deal through parliament have been dealt a severe blow as she prepares to return home and face her party.
The prime minister headed to Brussels for a winter summit with a promise to push for legal assurances that the Irish backstop would only be temporary.
She said when she arrived: “I don’t expect an immediate breakthrough but what I do hope is that we can start work as quickly as possible on the assurances that are necessary.”
But after making a personal address to EU27 leaders and taking questions from them in an afternoon meeting on Thursday, she was left without any pledge to provide new legal assurances.
Sky News understands she suggested one plan – not to agree an end date of the backstop, but a start date of the hoped-for future relationship.
Hours later, a list of five “conclusions” reached by the leaders without her was published at a dramatic midnight news conference.
The Telegraph reported one of the crucial draft lines that was eventually scrapped was: “The union stands ready to examine whether any further assurance can be provided.”
It was replaced by a call to “work on preparedness at all levels for the consequences of the UK’s withdrawal to be intensified, taking into account all possible outcomes”.
The move is likely to spark fresh revolt from Mrs May’s backbenchers, given at least 100 of them vowed to reject the deal in a vote scrapped at the last minute.
In remarks that will rile them further, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared: “We don’t want the UK to think there can be any form of renegotiation, that is crystal clear.
“We can add clarifications but no real changes. There will be no legally binding obligations imposed on the withdrawal treaty.”
He criticised the UK’s lack of clarity over the future relationship it is seeking with the EU once it has left.
“Our UK friends need to say what they want, instead of asking us to say what we want,” he said.
“So we would like within a few weeks our UK friends to set out their expectations for us because this debate is sometimes nebulous and imprecise and I would like clarifications.”
Mr Juncker added it was “hard” to understand the “state of mind” of Conservative MPs who have vowed to reject the deal.
Asked by Sky News to explain his comments, Mr Juncker said: “I would like to invite them, in all respect, to read the deal line by line.”
Mrs May is due to return to the European Council on Friday for talks with EU leaders on migration, but be cut out of the second half of their summit.
She will then return home to London, where only one day ago she survived a confidence vote called by at least 48 of her own MPs.