Theresa May is clinging desperately to her Chequers plan today despite her Salzburg humiliation at the hands of EU leaders.
The Prime Minister is facing a battle for political survival after being ambushed with a series of vicious attacks on her Brexit blueprint.
In a calculated snub at the end of a tense summit last night, EU council president Donald Tusk bluntly stated that the UK proposal ‘will not work’. French president Emmanuel Macron also caused fury by gloating about the predicament facing Britain, saying the country was learning not to listen to ‘liars’.
But Mrs May insisted her plan was the only ‘credible’ option on the table, and warned she is ready to walk away if the bloc will not compromise on key areas like the Irish border.
Ministers were dispatched to broadcast studios this morning to dismiss the jibes as a ‘negotiating tactic’.
But the bitter clashes pave the way for an explosive Tory conference with Downing Street braced for an all-out assault from Eurosceptic rivals.
Support for Mrs May’s stance in the Cabinet is said to be weakening, with Home Secretary Sajid Javid among those thought to be edging towards backing looser Canada-style links with the EU.
Boris Johnson is expected to address a fringe event at the Birmingham conference in what will inevitably be seen as a leadership pitch.
Theresa May (pictured at the close of the Salzburg summit) bluntly dismissed the EU commission’s latest proposals for resolving the Northern Ireland border issue, saying they would break up the UK
Mr Macron made an extraordinary intervention into domestic British politics as he delivered a stinging verdict on Chequers
Mrs May put on a brave face as she started crucial talks with EU leaders in Salzburg after several said talks over Brexit are ‘at a standstill’. She is pictured with Jean-Claude Juncker (centre) and Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel (right)
Mrs May had travelled to the EU summit in Austria hoping for warm words from fellow leaders to give her political cover for the Chequers plan, which is set to be savaged by critics like Boris Johnson at next month’s Tory conference.
But despite a personal plea from her over dinner, the EU leaders issued a humiliating rebuff designed to hand fresh ammunition to her critics.
Macron: Pro-Brexit campaigners ‘lied’
Emmanuel Macron branded the leaders of the pro-Brexit campaign ‘liars’ for telling voters it would be easy to leave the EU.
The French president said the decision was ‘not without costs’ and ‘not without consequences’.
‘Brexit is the choice of the British people and it is a choice pushed by certain people who predicted easy solutions,’ he said in Salzburg.
‘Brexit has shown us one thing – and I fully respect British sovereignty in saying this – it has demonstrated that those who said you can easily do without Europe, that it will all go very well, that it is easy and there will be lots of money, are liars.
‘This is all the more true because they left the next day, so they didn’t have to manage it.’ Mr Macron said it was true that Brexit negotiations had been complex and lengthy.
But he added: ‘That fact must not be exploited by those very people who are the cause of this problem, who got us into the Brexit situation and who now tell us that Europe is going from crisis to crisis.’
His claim the leaders of the Brexit campaign ‘left the next day’ after the vote appeared to confuse them with David Cameron, who quit as PM after calling on voters to back Remain. By contrast, Brexit supporters David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox were brought into the Cabinet.
The Prime Minister acknowledged she had had a ‘frank’ meeting with Mr Tusk shortly before she faced the press – diplomatic code for a blazing row.
In a warning to EU leaders that she cannot be pushed much further, she added: ‘Let nobody be in any doubt… we are preparing for ‘no deal’ so that if we get to a position where it is not possible to do a deal then the British people can have confidence that we will have done what is necessary to ensure we make a success of leaving the European Union regardless of the terms on which we do so.’
Mrs May also angrily rejected calls for a second referendum, after the prime ministers of Malta and the Czech Republic publicly backed the idea. She said: ‘There will be no second referendum.’
Communities Secretary James Brokenshire tried to soothe the tensions today, saying Mrs May was determined not to do the ‘easy’ thing by caving into EU demands.
‘It is a negotiation. Should we be surprised that the EU has taken a tough stance at this stage in the negotiation?’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said last night that Britain was heading for a no-deal Brexit if the EU refused to soften its position on the Irish border.
He told Newsnight the government would not drop its Chequers Plan despite the brutal rejection of it.
Mr Grayling said: ‘We are in the midst of a negotiation where people are setting out robust, firm positions – and this is often the way with the European Union. They build up, there’s tough language and actually a deal is done at the last. And I’m still confident that we will reach agreement.’
He added: ‘We have put forward the only proposal that we believe meets the UK’s red lines and also provides the right solution for the Irish border. At the moment what the European Union is asking in and around Northern Ireland is actually impossible for the UK to accept. If they stick with that position, there will be no deal.
‘No UK government, certainly not this one – and the Labour party have said the same – could possibly accept any border in the Irish sea, between northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.’
Theresa May (pictured in Salzburg) was left isolated at the summit after leaders turned on her Chequers plan for Brexit
Jean-Claude Juncker (pictured next to Theresa May at the Salzburg summit) said the two sides were ‘far away’ from a Brexit deal
But the anger at the EU among Tories from both the Remainer and Brexiteer wings of the party was less restrained.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith accused the EU of ‘bullying’ Britain.
‘This demonstrates that the EU are behaving like bullies, throwing their weight around and using the Irish border as an excuse,’ he said. ‘This will demonstrate to so many people why we need to leave. Mrs May should go for free trade, and call their bluff.
Ex-Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb said EU leaders had sought to ‘belittle’ the PM.
‘The manner in which they did it yesterday took many of us by surprise,’ he said.
‘The manner in which they sought to belittle and put down the Prime Minister yesterday pushes people like me… into a position where we say the quicker we’re out of this circus, the better.
‘There’s still life left in this. The Prime Minister can’t back down.’
Tory MP Hugo Swire said: ‘If this is a negotiating ploy by Macron, Merkel and Tusk, they have seriously overestimated Theresa May’s room to manoeuvre back in the UK.’
Mrs May suggested that rejection of Chequers was a negotiating ‘tactic’ designed to wring further concessions from her. Privately, aides said they had expected a similar ‘stunt’ at some point in the negotiations, but had not anticipated EU leaders deserting her in her hour of need.
Mr Tusk, who came under pressure from Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to adopt a tough stance, said the two sides now faced a ‘moment of truth’ next month, which would decide whether a Brexit deal was possible or not.
He also cast doubt on whether a special Brexit summit pencilled in for November would take place at all unless Britain changes course.
At a press conference in Salzburg (pictured), EU council chief Donald Tusk insisted Theresa May’s Chequers plan would undermine the single market
The EU leaders did not hold back in their criticism of the Chequers plan despite Mrs May’s perilous political position. Pictured are (left to right) Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Mr Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker
EU leaders were continuing their discussions at the informal summit in Salzburg
EU council president Donald Tusk took to Instagram to joke about the standoff , posting a picture of himself choosing cakes with Mrs May and the message: ‘Sorry, no cherries.’
The diplomatic ambush led to recriminations against Mrs May’s advisers, who had briefed that she was poised for a breakthrough.
Mr Duncan Smith said: ‘I don’t know what the civil service were up to when they told her the EU would accept the Chequers deal. It’s clearly not going to fly and Ollie Robbins [Mrs May’s chief Brexit adviser] should take the blame for that.’
What did EU leaders say about May’s Brexit plan at Salzburg summit?
Leaders from across the EU savaged Theresa May’s Chequers Brexit plan at the Salzburg summit.
Here is what they said:
Donald Tusk, EU Council President:
‘Everybody shared the view that while there are positive elements in the Chequers proposal, the suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work, not least as it risks undermining the single market.’
Emmanuel Macron, French President:
‘Brexit is the choice of the British people and it is a choice pushed by certain people who predicted easy solutions.
‘Brexit has shown us one thing – and I fully respect British sovereignty in saying this – it has demonstrated that those who said you can easily do without Europe, that it will all go very well, that it is easy and there will be lots of money, are liars.’
Angela Merkel, German Chancellor:
‘We need substantial progress on Brexit by October.’
Jean-Claude Juncker, EU Commission President:
‘No deal is not my working assumption, but would it happen, then we are prepared because the Commission has prepared in detail all the elements of consequences of a no-deal.’
‘So don’t worry. Be happy, don’t worry.’
Mark Rutte, Dutch PM:
‘I do not feel more confident, but also at the same time not less optimistic.’
Leo Varadkar, Irish PM:
‘Time is running short. There’s proposals for another summit in October and then in November.
‘Ireland is a country that obviously wants to avoid a no deal scenario, we want to avoid a no deal Brexit, (but) we are preparing for that, we are hiring extra staff and officials, putting in IT systems, we’re ready for that eventuality should it occur.’
Charles Michel, Belgian PM
‘Today I can see that it is necessary to make all the steps because the proposals are not enough in order to have an agreement.’
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán said EU leaders were split between those who want a pragmatic Brexit deal and those who want one that ‘punishes’ the UK.
He said some leaders believed ‘Britain must suffer’, adding: ‘I don’t like that approach at all. What we need is a fair Brexit and good cooperation between the UK and EU in future.’ Asked if more people were coming round to his camp, he said he was ‘getting a majority’.
But hours later, President Macron, Chancellor Merkel and the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier persuaded the bloc to toughen its stance.
Mr Macron made it clear he wanted to punish Britain to dissuade other member states from heading for the EU’s exit door. The French President branded pro-Brexit politicians as ‘liars’ adding: ‘Brexit shows that it is not easy to leave the EU. It is not without costs. It is not without consequences.’
Mrs May insisted Chequers was ‘the only proposal’ that would deliver frictionless trade with the EU and keep the UK’s pledge to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland.
She said EU leaders were wrong to believe that her controversial plan for a ‘common rule book’ on goods would undermine the single market – a point made specifically by Mr Tusk yesterday. ‘Yes concerns have been raised,’ she said. ‘I want to know what those concerns are. There is a lot of hard work to be done. But I believe that there is a willingness to do a deal.’
The hardline approach from Brussels prompted an angry reaction in the UK. Former Tory chairman Grant Shapps said the PM was right to stick to her pledge to leave without a deal if Brussels continued to act unreasonably.
Mr Shapps said: ‘I’m no Brexiteer – in fact I voted Remain – but we may fast be approaching a situation where our handling over £39billion [in ‘divorce’ payments] won’t work for us either.’ Fellow Remainer Tory MP Anna Soubry said it was clear the Chequers deal was ‘bereft of life’ and urged the PM to pursue membership of the EU single market after Brexit.
Meanwhile, Eurosceptic MPs stepped up their vows to kill off the Chequers deal at the Conservative conference. Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs, said: ‘Everyone expected there would be some softening of Mr Barnier’s line. That hasn’t happened, it has been made firmer. I think Chequers now has no supporters at all. I doubt even the Downing Street cat is any longer backing the Chequers plan. I think the time has come for Mrs May to say, ‘This is not going to work’.’
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis last night claimed more than 40 Tory Brexiteer MPs are ready to vote against Chequers. He said rebels have a ‘solid core’ of around three times the number needed to defeat the plan in Parliament.
Tory MPs rounded on Theresa May’s Chequers Brexit plan after the EU’s damning verdict – with Remain-voting Grant Shapps calling for the divorce bill to be withheld
Tory MP Marcus Fysh urged the PM to accept that her Chequers plan is unworkable and to move on to a new proposal
Why did PM’s aide tell her Chequers was a ‘game changer’?
Theresa May’s EU adviser is facing questions about his role in the Salzburg summit after he assured the Prime Minister that her Chequers plan would be a success.
Amid shock and anger over the rejection of her deal by the EU yesterday, Olly Robbins’s name was repeatedly mentioned. The senior civil servant, who Mrs May appointed as her personal Brexit adviser last year, helped draw up the Chequers strategy, which is threatening to split her party.
Earlier this month he assured the PM that EU leaders thought her Brexit plan was a ‘game changer’. He indicated that his attempts to sell the proposals to the remaining EU 27 member states had been a success.
The wholesale rejection of the Chequers blueprint yesterday – just over a week before the Tory party conference – will make the PM’s job even more difficult.
As a furious Mrs May returned to London, pressure was mounting on the man she trusted to be her ‘eyes and ears’ in Brussels.
Mr Robbins, 43, joined her team a year ago as part of a move by Number 10 to exert more control over the Brexit negotiations.
He repeatedly clashed with then Brexit secretary David Davis, and was said to have suggested that he should be the opposite number to Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator. Earlier this month, Mr Robbins refused to say whether he believed leaving the EU would be a ‘good thing’.
A Europhile since his days at Oxford University, he became private secretary to Tony Blair aged just 31. He was steadily promoted before becoming an adviser to Mrs May and taking the helm of the Brexit negotiations. This summer, it emerged that Mrs May’s right-hand man was paid a bonus of up to £20,000 despite the chaos surrounding the Brexit strategy.
The PM personally signed off on the money, which comes on top of Mr Robbins’s bumper pay packet of up to £165,000 a year.
But his performance in selling the Chequers deal to the EU will raise questions about his future.
So what on earth happens next?
Theresa May is facing a bruising and potentially nightmarish end to 2018.
After the EU yesterday all but killed off her post-Brexit Chequers plan, she flew home last night to lick her wounds and work out how to navigate the choppy months ahead.
The Tory conference
The first of the Prime Minister’s challenges is the Tory party conference which starts on Sunday September 30 in Birmingham.
Former foreign secretary and arch Brexiteer Boris Johnson is planning a pro-Brexit rally for hundreds of the party’s grassroots activists. The event, hosted by the ConservativeHome website, will see further scorn poured on Mrs May’s Chequers plan.
Its aim will be to put more pressure on her to ‘chuck Chequers’. The event is the night before her keynote party conference speech.
Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage is planning a nationwide tour of ‘Leave Means Leave’ rallies to hammer home the anti-Chequers message.
It starts in Bolton this Sunday and he will lead a Save Brexit rally on September 30 at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham where he will be joined by Tory MPs Peter Bone and Andrea Jenkyns.
Mrs May will have painful memories of her disastrous speech to the conference last year – wrecked by a coughing fit and a collapsing stage set.
Return of Parliament… and leadership plotting
Parliament returns from recess on October 9, having stopped sitting for the conference season. This will be the first time when MPs outraged at Mrs May’s insistence on sticking with her Chequers plan will have a chance to voice their opinions.
Many Eurosceptics will delight in telling Mrs May ‘I told you so’ when she reports back on the Salzburg summit. It would also provide the first opportunity for a potential leadership challenge.
A handful of members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, have been threatening to overthrow the Prime Minister for weeks. Last night former Brexit secretary David Davis claimed he had 40 MPs signed up to vote against Chequers.
More awkward dates with EU leaders
EU president Donald Tusk has warned that the next EU summit on October 18 is the moment Brexit talks could collapse if Britain does not make more concessions on Chequers and the Irish border.
This would lead to him abandoning a further special summit that is due to be held on November 15.
Mrs May yesterday said she was willing to walk away without a deal. But it is unclear what her position would then be after she has spent months failing to sell her Chequers plan to MPs and the EU.
If she manages to get past the October summit with the basis of an agreement with the EU, she then faces the emergency summit, at which both sides have said they will aim to finalise matters. Any 11th-hour complications could turn this summit into a nightmare.
But will any deal get MPs’ backing?
Mrs May’s biggest challenge could be getting any Brexit ‘divorce’ deal past MPs. Labour has said it will vote against any deal she reaches.
This, combined with Brexiteers angry about her not seeking their preferred Canada-style free trade deal, could mean she does not have the numbers to get it passed.
Both the UK and EU have agreed that a deal should be done by no later than November so there is enough time to get it signed off by their respective parliaments in time for March 29, 2019, when Britain will leave the EU.