May plans to renegotiate her deal - but Barnier says it’s out of the question

PUBLISHED: 09:02 30 January 2019 | UPDATED: 09:03 30 January 2019

Theresa May in the House of Commons. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/PA.

Theresa May in the House of Commons. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/PA.

Theresa May is preparing to return to the EU to try to renegotiate her Brexit deal - but the EU has ruled out further talks.

In a dramatic night of votes in the Commons, MPs supported a proposal endorsed by the prime minister to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements” to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

But she earned an immediate rebuff from Brussels, where European Council president Donald Tusk insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement struck last November was not open for renegotiation.

Meanwhile, one of May’s strongest negotiating weapons was ripped from her hands by MPs who voted to block a no-deal Brexit.

The Commons voted by 317 to 301 in favour of the backstop changes - which May said showed there was a means of securing a “substantial and sustainable majority in this House for leaving the EU with a deal” and vowed to seek a new agreement with Brussels.

But in a statement, Tusk’s spokesman said: “The Withdrawal Agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the European Union.

“The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for re-negotiation.”

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told reporters in Brussels: “The position of the European Union is very clear.”

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said the controversial backstop arrangement remained “necessary” despite the vote, while the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, said there was “no majority to re-open or dilute” the Withdrawal Agreement.

And French President Emmanuel Macron also said the agreement was “not renegotiable”, in comments just moments before MPs voted.

While Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the Conservatives had shown they “can and will come together in the national interest”, signs of division in the party remained as Tory former minister Anna Soubry said she finds her “party drifting to the right”.

May told MPs: “I agree that we should not leave without a deal. However, simply opposing no-deal is not enough to stop it.

“The Government will now redouble its efforts to get a deal that this House can support.”

There was uproar in the chamber as she said: “There is limited appetite for such a change in the EU and negotiating it will not be easy. But in contrast to a fortnight ago, this House has made it clear what it needs to approve a withdrawal agreement.”

May said she would seek “legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that deal with concerns on the backstop while guaranteeing no return to a hard border”.

And she told MPs: “If this House can come together, we can deliver the decision the British people took in June 2016, restore faith in our democracy and get on with building a country that works for everyone.

“As prime minister I will work with members across the House to do just that.”

Scottish National Party leader Ian Blackford said the Conservatives had “effectively ripped apart the Good Friday Agreement”.

But the Democratic Unionist Party’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds, whose party backed the amendment tabled by Tory grandee Sir Graham Brady, said it was “utterly reckless to talk in those terms”.

Dodds said: “This is a significant night because for the first time the House by majority has expressed what sort of deal will get through and will have a majority, and we will work with the Prime Minister to deliver the right deal for the United Kingdom.”

The pound dipped sharply after the failure of the attempts to delay Brexit, losing around 0.7% against both the US dollar and euro, though there were indications later that it may be rising.

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