Theresa May sought to push the vote on her Brexit deal into the new year as she claimed to be “just at the start” of a renegotiation that EU leaders insisted had no room to include fundamental changes.
The British prime minister embarked on a whistle-stop tour of The Hague, Berlin and Brussels to try to resuscitate her plan against the backdrop of a renewed leadership threat at home.
To the annoyance of senior EU figures, Mrs May indicated she only expected to present her new package to a hostile House of Commons before a new self-imposed deadline of January 21, extending the uncertainty for both sides.
“We know we need to look at this issue before then,” Mrs May said after wrapping her trip up in Brussels. “But we are just at the start of the negotiations and at the start of the discussions.” Amid the uncertainty, the pound dipped briefly below $1.25, hitting its lowest level since April 2017.
Mrs May’s last-gasp diplomacy ahead of an EU summit this week was interrupted by renewed claims her Tory critics had assembled the 48 letters from Conservative MPs needed to trigger a confidence vote in her leadership.
Eurosceptic MPs claimed the “mood has changed” in party ranks since Mrs May’s decision to abort a planned crunch vote on her compromise Brexit deal on Monday, which she admitted she would have lost by “a significant margin”.
Martin Vickers, one Tory Brexiter, said: “She is in danger. I personally know of two letters which went in last night.” Claims of an imminent confidence vote have been made previously and have turned out to be unfounded.
Mrs May’s supporters insisted she would win any leadership challenge, but the mutinous mood at Westminster raised the stakes as the prime minister toured Europe in search of some succour in her fight to ratify her Brexit deal.
European leaders spoke with a single voice in insisting there could be no reopening of Britain’s exit treaty, which includes the controversial Irish backstop that would force the UK into a “temporary” EU customs union to avoid a hard border in Ireland if the two sides are unable to agree a way forward.
Both Mrs May and EU negotiators are looking at ways to provide an “assurance” that the backstop would be temporary, but Brussels is growing increasingly worried by imprecise or undeliverable UK demands.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, wrote on Twitter that he had a “long and frank discussion” with Mrs May ahead of Thursday’s summit of EU leaders, adding: “Clear that EU27 wants to help. The question is how?”
Mrs May has accepted that any unpicking of the treaty could lead to other EU countries demanding their own concessions. But her critics at Westminster want a legal guarantee that Britain could unilaterally exit the backstop, not warm words.
Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, told Mrs May that Brussels will not renegotiate the 585-page Brexit treaty, warning there was “no room whatsoever” to tweak the agreement.
Speaking in Strasbourg to MEPs, Mr Juncker said he was willing to provide the UK prime minister with “further clarification”, but ruled out a change to the legally binding withdrawal text.
“The deal we achieved is the best deal possible, it is the only deal possible. There is no room whatsoever for renegotiation,” he said. “Everyone has to know that reopening the withdrawal agreement will not happen.”
Angela Merkel, who met Mrs May for lunch in Berlin, told a meeting of her party’s MPs that no one wanted the backstop to be in effect forever. One MP quoted the German chancellor as saying: “Maybe there might be a way of making that a bit clearer somehow, to reassure MPs in Westminster.”
Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, said Britain could remove the threat of a no-deal Brexit “at any time” by revoking or extending its Article 50 departure procedure to leave the EU. Downing Street said there would be no delay to Brexit.
Rather than seeking a change to the withdrawal text itself, Britain has suggested Brussels could replicate a concession given to The Netherlands in 2016 after Dutch voters rejected an EU trade and association agreement with Ukraine.
The EU issued a binding legal interpretation of that treaty that avoided reopening the agreement to placate Dutch concerns. But, despite Mrs May’s request, Brussels is not willing to offer any clarification on the backstop that carries legal force.
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin and Arthur Beesley in Dublin