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.
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.’
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