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May demands pledge from EU to protect our citizens abroad

Theresa May making a statement on Brexit negotiations at 10 Downing Street on Friday

Theresa May last night ramped up her war of words with Brussels by demanding a pledge to protect expats living in Europe if Britain leaves the EU without a deal.

The Prime Minister, who is in increasingly defiant mood after the rejection of her Chequers deal by EU leaders last week, told The Mail on Sunday that protecting expats was ‘the right thing’ to do.

The move – designed to demonstrate the seriousness of preparations for a no-deal Brexit – follows Mrs May’s dramatic live broadcast from Downing Street on Friday, when she criticised Brussels for a lack of ‘respect’.

EU leaders stunned Downing Street at Thursday’s Salzburg summit by condemning the Chequers plan as unworkable, leaving negotiations deadlocked with just six months to go before Brexit Day on March 29 next year.

Mrs May faces a crunch Cabinet meeting tomorrow – originally called to discuss post-Brexit immigration policy – which is expected to be dominated by debate over whether her Chequers deal can be salvaged.

Pro-Brexit Cabinet Ministers, including International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, are being monitored closely by No 10 for signs they could resign if no alternative to Chequers is presented.

In her No 10 speech, Mrs May promised that the rights of more than three million EU citizens living in the UK would be protected, even if negotiations broke down completely.

Last night she told this newspaper: ‘We took this decision because it is the right thing to do. And I call upon the EU to reciprocate for UK citizens living in the EU. That, too, is the right thing to do.’

Mrs May also promised to remain calm in the face of the EU’s provocation. ‘Now is the time for cool heads. And it is a time to hold our nerve,’ she said.

Amid growing demands within Labour for a second referendum, the Prime Minister accused Jeremy Corbyn of trying to ‘thwart Brexit at every step and seeking to exploit this moment for political gain’.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt joined the concerted Government fightback yesterday, urging the EU to ‘step back from the abyss’ of a no-deal Brexit.

He told the BBC: ‘What Theresa May is saying is, “Don’t mistake British politeness for weakness. If you put us in a difficult corner, we will stand our ground – that is the kind of country we are.’

Mr Hunt directly criticised Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and France’s Emmanuel Macron.

Donald Tusk’s Instagram jibe

Tory MP Vicky Ford went on Twitter to point out Belgian buns do in fact have cherries

After Donald Tusk’s Instagram jibe, left, Tory MP Vicky Ford went on Twitter to point out Belgian buns do in fact have cherries

Mr Tusk had posted an Instagram picture that showed him offering Mrs May a cupcake at a buffet. Underneath was the comment: ‘A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries.’ EU leaders had complained the UK was trying to ‘cherry-pick’ the best of the Single Market.

Mr Hunt said: ‘Insulting Mrs May on social media, getting to these stand-offs where you are calling people liars and so on is not the way that we are going to get a solution to this difficult situation.’

The EU’s intransigent approach has prompted some Tory MPs who have been critical of Mrs May to rally to her defence.

Former party chairman Grant Shapps, who voted Remain, called for the Prime Minister to threaten to cancel Britain’s £39 billion ‘divorce’ payment. 

‘It is increasingly questionable whether the EU is approaching these negotiations with the same sense of honour as us,’ he said. 

‘Now might be the time to let the EU know that the UK intends to withhold that £39 billion we set aside to help plug Europe’s budget black hole after we leave. 

‘For a centre-ground Conservative MP such as me, I might just about be able to live with Chequers in return for its sustaining open trade in goods with the EU.

‘But water the plan down much further and, well, we might as well just leave.’

Mr Shapps also blasted President Macron, saying: ‘A foreign leader insulting over half the electorate who – unlike me – voted to leave, is no way to constructively engage with the UK. 

‘The problem is that we don’t appear to have a serious partner in Europe with which to negotiate.

‘If that is the case, it might be better to take that giant cheque off the table.’