Donald Tusk tonight warned the EU will not renegotiate the Brexit deal just hours after a humiliated Theresa May said she was pulling the crunch vote on her plan so she could hold a fresh round of talks.
The EU council president said ‘time is running out’ and made it clear the bloc is not willing to change the legal text of the agreement, including the controversial Irish border backstop.
And he delivered a thinly veiled threat by declaring that the EU will be stepping up its preparations for the UK crashing out of the bloc in March.
The intervention came after the PM humiliatingly delayed the Commons vote on her Brexit deal to avoid a catastrophic defeat.
She has pledged to return to Brussels to push for concessions after swathes of Tories signalled they will not support the current package.
And she will kick off her European tour tomorrow morning by holding a meeting with the Dutch PM Mark Rutte in The Hague.
Mrs May faced an historic defeat by up to 200 votes in tomorrow’s vote and must now come up with something to change the tide.
Taking to her feet in the packed Commons Chamber tonight to confirm the U-turn, she hinted that her Brexit deal could be delayed for six weeks.
She faced taunts and barracking from MPs, and Tory MP and Brexiteer in chief Jacob Rees-Mogg branded her decision to scrap the vote a ‘humiliation’ and admission of ‘defeat’.
And Mr Tusk confirmed on Twitter that he has decided to call a meeting on Brexit at this Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels.
But in a snub to the PM, he warned: ‘We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario.’
The Prime Minister (pictured in the Commons today) is battling for her political life amid a huge rebellion over her Brexit deal
Donald Tusk tonight warned the EU will not renegotiate the Brexit deal just hours after a humiliated Theresa May said she was pulling the crunch vote on her plan so she could renegotiate
She insisted her blueprint was still the ‘best deal negotiable’, and said she still planned to put it to a vote once ‘reassurances’ had been secured on the Irish border backstop – but implied that might not happen before January 21.
In words that raise doubts about whether the tweaks will be enough, Mrs May dodged questions about whether she was going to ask for the Withdrawal Agreement to be reopened, and made clear she is not demanding the EU drops the backstop.
The statement was immediately condemned by Brexiteers, with Jacob Rees-Mogg demanding that she ‘governs or quits’. The DUP complained that the PM does not ‘get it’ and her deal will ‘never’ be acceptable to Parliament.
Jeremy Corbyn insisted the government is in ‘disarray’ and must ‘make way’ for Labour to take power, while Remainers accused Mrs May of ‘running down the clock’ and called for a second referendum.
The premier was also given an extraordinary dressing down by Speaker John Bercow who accused her of ‘discourtesy’ for abandoning the vote after four days of debate – urging her to show ‘maturity’ by giving MPs their say.
The Pound plunged further against the US dollar as markets took fright at the political carnage.
Amid a cacophony of catcalls from MPs in the chamber, Mrs May said: ‘While there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal on one issue – the Northern Ireland backstop – there remains widespread and deep concern.
‘As a result, if we went ahead and held that vote that deal would be rejected by a significant margin.
‘We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow, and not proceed to divide the House at this time.’
Mrs May said she would hold talks with EU counterparts over the coming days before heading for Brussels summit on Thursday.
‘I will discuss with them the clear concerns that this House has expressed,’ she said.
‘We are also looking closely at new ways of empowering the House of Commons to ensure that any provision for a backstop has democratic legitimacy and to enable the House to place its own obligations on the government to ensure that the backstop cannot be in place indefinitely.
‘Having spent the best part of two years poring over the details of Brexit….I am in absolutely no doubt that this deal is the right one.’
The EU has already flatly dismissed the idea that there could be substantive concessions on the divorce package, with Irish PM Leo Varadkar insisting it is ‘not possible’ to change the deal.
An EU commission spokeswoman said: ‘This deal is the best and only deal possible. We will not renegotiate – our position has therefore not changed and as far as we are concerned the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on the 29th March 2019.’
In another day of high drama in Westminster:
- Remainers seized on a ruling from the European Court of Justice saying the UK can unilaterally cancel the Brexit process. Judges confirmed that permission would not be needed from other states, and the country could keep current membership terms.
- DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds branded Mrs May – who is being propped up in power by the Northern Ireland party’s 10 MPs – a ‘shambles’. He demanded the government abandons her Brexit deal, warning ‘if the penny has not dropped by now it never will’.
- Labour infighting over a second referendum raged as Jeremy Corbyn tried to play down the prospect of a vote that could keep the UK in the EU.
- It emerged the PM’s Brexit negotiator Ollie Robbins has been despatched to Brussels for crisis talks on how to salvage the deal so it might get past MPs.
- The Pound slipped to an 20-month low against the US dollar amid growing fears that the Brexit deal has little chance of making it through Parliament.
Earlier, Mrs May decided to postpone the vote in an emergency conference call with her most senior ministers after days of intense wrangling over how to navigate the dire situation.
Some 110 Tory MPs have vowed to oppose Mrs May’s plan, making victory all-but impossible as they line up with Labour, the SNP, and the Lib Dems.
A series of Cabinet ministers and a spokeswoman for the PM all publicly insisted this morning that the vote was ‘going ahead as planned’.
But within an hour three senior sources told MailOnline they were certain that the Commons showdown will be put off. The Pound plunged on the news.
The decision drew derision from critics, including Tories.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused the PM of ‘pathetic cowardice’ and demanded Labour join a no confidence vote to collapse the government, while Conservative MP Nick Boles jibed: ‘Nothing has changed, right?’
Asked when she would bring the deal back to the Commons, Mrs May said under the EU Withdrawal Act the government must lay out its plans to Parliament by January 21 at the latest.
However, Commons experts have raised doubts about whether the deadline applies any more now that an agreement in principle has been reached with Brussels.
Mrs May also signalled defiance over the Irish border backstop – despite it threatening to torpedo her government.
‘I set out I my speech opening the debate last week the reasons why the backstop is a necessary guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland, and why, whatever future relationship you want, there can be no deal available that does not include the backstop,’ she told MPs.
‘Behind all those arguments are some inescapable facts – the fact that Northern Ireland shares a land border with another sovereign state.
‘The fact that the hard won peace that has been built in Northern Ireland over the last twoa decades has bene built around a seamless border.
‘And the fact that Brexit will create a wholly new situation. OJ the 30 March the Northern Ireland – Ireland border will for the first time become the external frontier of the European Union’s single market and customs union.’
The climbdown allows Mrs May to avoid catastrophic defeat, and go back to Brussels to try to get more concessions.
But also demonstrates how low her authority has sunk.
What is the Irish border backstop and why do Tory MPs hate it?
The entire Brexit deal has been stalled over the so-called Irish border backstop in the divorce package. This is what it means:
What is the backstop?
The backstop was invented to meet promises to keep open the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland even if there is no comprehensive UK-EU trade deal.
The divorce deal says it will kick in automatically at the end of the Brexit transition if that deal is not in place.
If effectively keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU and Northern Ireland in both the customs union and single market.
This means many EU laws will keep being imposed on the UK and there can be no new trade deals. It also means regulatory checks on some goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Why have Ireland and the EU demanded it?
Because Britain demanded to leave the EU customs union and single market, the EU said it needed guarantees people and goods circulating inside met EU rules.
This is covered by the Brexit transition, which effectively maintains current rules, and can in theory be done in the comprehensive EU-UK trade deal.
But the EU said there had to be a backstop to cover what happens in any gap between transition and final deal.
Why do critics hate it?
Because Britain cannot decide when to leave the backstop.
Getting out – even if there is a trade deal – can only happen if both sides agree people and goods can freely cross the border.
Brexiteers fear the EU will unreasonably demand the backstop continues so EU law continues to apply in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland MPs also hate the regulatory border in the Irish Sea, insisting it unreasonably carves up the United Kingdom.
What concessions did Britain get in negotiating it?
During the negotiations, Britain persuaded Brussels the backstop should apply to the whole UK and not just Northern Ireland. Importantly, this prevents a customs border down the Irish Sea – even if some goods still need to be checked.
The Government said this means Britain gets many of the benefits of EU membership after transition without all of the commitments – meaning Brussels will be eager to end the backstop.
It also got promises the EU will act in ‘good faith’ during the future trade talks and use its ‘best endeavours’ to finalise a deal – promises it says can be enforced in court.
What did the legal advice say about it?
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said even with the EU promises, if a trade deal cannot be reached the backstop could last forever.
This would leave Britain stuck in a Brexit limbo, living under EU rules it had no say in writing and no way to unilaterally end it.
The dramatic developments came as Tory infighting escalated dramatically, with leadership rivals including Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid getting ready to pounce.
Foreign minister Alan Duncan warned that those who kill off Mrs May deal ‘will forever be known as the wreckers’.
He also said if Mr Johnson took over at No10 he will be met with ‘loud raspberries in many many different languages’. ‘He is the last person on earth who would make any progress on these talks,’ he said.
A growing number of ministers had been urging Mrs May to shelve the clash tomorrow to avoid disaster.
But others insisted that it would look like cowardice, and she needs a demonstration of Parliament’s view to strengthen her hand with Brussels.
Mr Rees-Mogg ramped up his bid to oust Mrs May as leader – branding her Brexit U-turn a ‘humiliation’ which has left her deal ‘defeated’.
The Tory MP and leading Brexiteer said Conservatives are fed up at the feeling of ‘drift’ and total lack of direction coming from No10.
He branded the Government a ‘mess’ and said the PM’s decision to pull the crunch vote on her Brexit deal has increased the likelihood the UK will crash out of Brussels with no deal.
And he laid the blame squarely at Mrs May’s feet – saying the Brexit deal was her policy and she must take responsibility for it.
Emerging from a meeting of the powerful Brexit-backing European Research Group in Parliament tonight, he said: ‘This deal has been defeated hasn’t it? The Prime Minister said she was pulling it saying the vote couldn’t be won.’
Mr Rees-Mogg added: ‘I think the likelihood of leaving without a Withdrawal Agreement has gone up.
‘But I think we should aim for a managed no deal, and I have made clear and will happily reiterate – we need a new Prime Minister to do that.
If you look at today, this is the failure of the Prime Minister’s policy. The Withdrawal Agreement was her policy, two Dexeu secretaries resigned because they could not support her policy.
‘It is personally identified with her.
‘She is the one who has led the government to this defeat, she is the one who ought to take responsibility for it.’
He added: ‘I thought it was as humiliating for the government to pull the vote as to lose by 100 – if you were to weight it up. They must have thought they were going to lose it by more, to make it worth pulling.’
Senior figures had spent the weekend trying to quell mounting speculation about a retreat by the PM.
Hours before the volte face emerged at lunchtime, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said the showdown was ‘100 per cent’ on.
He gave a clear indication that the government is seeking concessions from the EU, saying there was ‘no-one better placed’ than Mrs May to get more concessions.
But he warned there were significant ‘risks’ in reopening the Withdrawal Agreement thrashed out with Brussels, including France seeking more access to fishing waters and Spain troublemaking over Gibraltar.
Mr Gove dismissed suggestions that Mrs May could be helped in her efforts by a heavy defeat in Parliament.
In a reference to the famous resignation speech by Geoffrey Howe that sunk Margaret Thatcher, he warned that would be the ‘equivalent of breaking the cricket bat in half before the leader went to the crease’.
‘If colleagues really want to help the PM I’m sure the PM would urge them gently but firmly to support her tomorrow,’ Mr Gove told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom is due to make a statement to MPs after Mrs May addresses them this afternoon.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will also make a separate statement later tonight, on the Article 50 ruling by the ECJ.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said this afternoon: ‘Just finished a call with the Prime Minister. My message was clear.
‘The backstop must go. Too much time has been wasted. Need a better deal. Disappointed it has taken so long for Prime Minister to listen.’
Some of her MPs had threatened to vote against a delay to the vote – raising the prospect of her being humiliatingly forced into holding it.
But No10 confirmed that it will use a procedural tactic to dodge having to get the change past the Commons.
When the Commons clerk reads out the orders of the day on Monday evening, the Government whip will call out ‘tomorrow’.
This puts off the two remaining days of debate and any votes until a date yet to be fixed. There is no requirement for vote on this procedure, said the PM’s spokesman.
But Mr Bercow raged at the tactic in an extraordinary intervention from the chair.
‘In any courteous, respectful and mature environment, allowing the House to have its say on the matter would be the right and obvious course to take,’ he said.
Shouts of ‘resign’ were heard from Opposition MPs as Mrs May concluded her initial statement to the Commons, with a febrile atmosphere sweeping the chamber for the exchanges.
Veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner labelled Mrs May ‘frit’ and accused her of ‘handing over power to the EU’ by delaying the vote, which prompted a defence of the PM by Tory former Cabinet minister Dame Cheryl Gillan.
Tory former minister Anna Soubry also warned Mrs May ‘nothing will change’ in the EU’s approach to negotiation as she suggested there was a need for a second referendum.
Speaking in the Commons, Tory Brexiteer Andrew Bridgen said: ‘Successful renegotiations require trust and credibility.
‘Given the Prime Minister’s breathtaking U-turn today, I put it to her that she’s lost the trust and credibility of the House, lost the trust and credibility of the country and most importantly she’s lost the trust and credibility of the European Union as well.’
Mrs May rejected Mr Bridgen’s remarks and said further discussions with the EU would take place.
In a rare intervention in support of the PM, Dame Cheryl Gillan said: ‘Far from being frit, I think this Prime Minister has shown great courage in coming back to face this House, delay this vote in efforts to get the best possible deal for this country.’
Mrs May spoke with EU council president Mr Tusk last night as she considers a bid to squeeze more concessions out of the EU.
The decision drew derision from critics, including Tory MP Nick Boles – who has been pushing for a ‘Norway plus’ outcome from the Brexit process
An EU summit is scheduled for the end of the week, which could provide a stage for Mrs May to emulate Margaret Thatcher and have a ‘handbag moment’ to demand more concessions on the Irish border ‘backstop’.
After the vote on the Brexit deal was postponed, children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi tweeted: ‘@theresa_may has listened to colleagues and will head to Brussels to push back on the backstop.’
But Ireland’s deputy PM Simon Coveney today delivered a savage blow by dismissing her chances of getting fresh concessions on Brexit.
He insisted the deal is ‘not going to change’.
In a clear leadership pitch yesterday, Mr Johnson predicted that Mrs May would lose her crunch vote on the deal by a huge margin.
EU court rules Britain CAN just cancel the Article 50 Brexit process
European Court of Justice judge Carl Gustav Fernlund read out the ruling on Article 50 at the court in Luxembourg today (pictured)
EU judges delivered a boost for Remainer rebels today by ruling that Britain can unilaterally cancel Brexit.
The European Court of Justice decided that Article 50 can be withdrawn by the UK without permission from other member states.
Britain would keep its current terms of membership if it quit the process – meaning keeping the rebate, the opt out from the Euro and exemptions from the Schengen passport-free zone.
Today’s ruling will encourage hopes from pro-EU MPs that a second referendum can be held to stop the UK from leaving the bloc altogether.
But Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the ruling was ‘irrelevant’ as it was ‘certainly not the intention of the government’ to delay Brexit.
The case was brought by a cross-party group of Scottish politicians together with lawyer Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project.
Looking visibly emotional as he appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, he said the UK can do ‘much much better’ than the PM’s deal.
There have been claims that Home Secretary Sajid Javid is also brazenly canvassing Cabinet colleagues for a tilt at the top job if Mrs May is ousted. Aides insisted he is focused on helping the PM get her deal through.
In a sign of what could be a torrent of resignations if and when she goes ahead with the vote, Tory MP Will Quince yesterday quit as a parliamentary aide to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.
At least two government whips were understood to be considering falling on their swords in order to vote against the Brexit package.
Mrs May’s position was further undermined today when the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK can unilaterally halt the Brexit process by withdrawing Article 50.
The judgement that permission is not needed was hailed by Remainers as opening the door to holding a second referendum.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, in Brussels for regular talks with counterparts this morning, said the government has no intention of reversing Article 50 and voters would be ‘shocked’ if it did.
Senior ministers including David Lidington and David Gauke are said to be in talks with Labour over whether a second referendum or a Norway-style deal would break the deadlock.
Sir Alan was on air on BBC’s Politics Live programme as the news of the Brexit delay emerged – risking controversy by laughing as he was told the government was in chaos.
Appearing on Radio 4 earlier, he claimed his Tory colleagues lining up to oppose Mrs May’s Brexit deal had not ‘thought strategically enough about what the consequences of that would be’.
‘The first is that even if they overturn it they are not necessarily going to get an alternative which they are campaigning for, and instead what they will probably do is set in train a course of events which could lead to chaos in many, many areas,’ he told the Today programme.
He warned there could be a leadership contest, or a general election, and said the UK could be ‘top dog in Europe at the moment when France is burning and Germany is in transition’ but instead ‘we’re just beating ourselves up’.
Sir Alan also said Tory former foreign secretary Boris Johnson would be ‘met with a very, very loud raspberry in many, many different languages’ if he walked into a negotiating room in Brussels.
Mr Gove dismissed suggestions that Mrs May could be helped in her efforts by a heavy defeat in Parliamen
And he warned: ‘What I really resent is the glee some people have in wanting to oppose this, and then in jostling for their own personal gain. This is contemptible.
‘Let’s be absolutely clear that if this goes pear-shaped in the way that it really could, on the back of people opposing the deal that is on offer tomorrow night, the wreckers in history will forever be known as the wreckers.’
Mr Dodds said: ‘This vote has been pulled because it would have been overwhelmingly defeated. Deferring the vote is only of any use if the Government is prepared to go to Brussels and insist on necessary changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.
‘Few people accepted this was the best deal available and the Prime Minister’s actions today prove that.’
Mutinous Tories are furious at her deal’s Irish backstop plan, which would see the UK tied to the customs union and more single market checks have to be carried out in Northern Ireland.
They warn the UK cannot pull out of the backstop without the EU’s permission – potentially keeping the UK ‘locked’ to Brussels against its will.
Amid mounting opposition to the deal, civil servants have war-gamed two versions of the UK holding another referendum.
The first is a straight choice between the PM’s deal and remaining in the EU, and the second would be a leave, remain contest with a second question asking them if they prefer the existing deal or a no-deal departure on World Trade Organisation terms, The Sunday Times reported.
If Mrs May loses an immediate no-confidence vote tomorrow, Parliament could have to sit on Christmas Day because the Fixed Term Parliament Act sets a deadline of 14 calendar days for a new Government to be formed, meaning December 25 would be the last chance for any coalition to try to win a Commons majority.
It’s believed that the last time the Commons sat on Christmas Day was in 1656.
If these are Theresa May’s final days in Downing Street, she seems remarkably sanguine about it, drinking from a mug which says ‘proud to be a Bloody Difficult Woman’ and using a hole punch which read ‘please do not remove from office’
Tory rivals prepare to pounce: Sajid Javid and Boris Johnson jockey for position as May faces disaster
With the PM’s position looking increasingly precarious, Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid are among the senior figures on manoeuvres for a looming contest.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is also thought to be staking his claim for the top job should Mrs May be ousted.
Both ex-Brexit Secretaries Dominic Raab and David Davis, Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Mrs May’s deputy David Lidington are also thought to be in the mix.
Some 110 Tory MPs are pledged to oppose the plan, making defeat all-but certain as they line up with Labour, the SNP, and the Lib Dems.
A growing number of ministers are believed to be urging Mrs May to shelve the clash tomorrow to avoid disaster.
Boris Johnson is the bookies’ favourite to take over if the Brexit chaos forces Theresa May out of Downing Street
There is the prospect of large scale resignations if Mrs May does press ahead – with at least two government whips understood to be among those contemplating quitting.
In a flavour of what could come, Tory MP Will Quince yesterday quit as a parliamentary aide to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.
Senior Conservatives also warn that a no-confidence vote in Mrs May’s leadership is inevitable if she does not back down before the vote.
Mr Johnson, meanwhile, also hinted at a possible leadership bid after outlining his plans for another negotiation with the EU.