Theresa May is set on a collision course with the EU after MPs voted to send her back to Brussels to reopen her Brexit deal.
Just a fortnight after inflicting a crushing defeat on her proposals, the Commons voted by 317 to 301 for changes to the ‘withdrawal agreement’ between the UK and the 27-nation bloc.
MPs backed an amendment by Tory grandee Sir Graham Brady to replace the so-called Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ with “alternative arrangements” that would free Britain from any indefinite link to EU trade rules.
After the vote, May said the majority of 16 meant she now had a mandate to take back for further negotiations with the EU.
She said: “It’s now clear there is a route that can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in this House for leaving the EU with a deal.
“We will now take this mandate forward and seek to obtain legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that deal with concerns on the backstop while guaranteeing no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
As the pound plunged amid fears of a no-deal exit, May was accused by Jeremy Corbyn of putting Tory interests - and a desperate desire not to split her party - ahead of the national interest.
Within seconds, a spokesman for EU council chief Donald Tusk said: “The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement and the withdrawal agreement is not open for re-negotiation.”
But even before the vote result, key EU figures made plain that they would not unpick the Brexit deal hammered out with May over the past two and a half years.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the current deal “is the best accord possible...it is not re-negotiable.”
The European Commission was set to announce formally that it “will not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement”.
And Manfred Weber, leader of the biggest group in the European Parliament, warned that if the package was reopened, then other issues such as the status of Gibraltar, fishing rights and Britain’s divorce bill will also be opened up for fresh talks.
Government sources said they had ‘priced in’ an early rebuff by Brussels to the vote, but the PM’s official spokesman said: “The EU...want the UK to leave with a deal because it’s in their best interests as well as those of the UK.”
Corbyn agreed to meet the PM to discuss the way forward, but pointed out that MPs had also voted to warn the government it would not tolerate a no-deal exit.
But the SNP’s Ian Blackford sparked uproar in the chamber when he claimed the Tories had ‘ripped up the Good Friday Agreement’ that has kept the peace in Northern Ireland for decades.
DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said the remarks were ‘utterly reckless’.
May insisted that the result meant that she finally had a clear mandate from the British parliament to seek changes in the deal before the UK formally quits the EU on March 29.
In a bid to win hardline Brexiteers’ support, the Prime Minister said that she would seek fresh talks on “alternative arrangements” to the current ‘backstop’ plan, including a time limit or unilateral exit mechanism.
“What I’m talking about is not a further exchange of letters but a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement,” she told MPs.
The PM admitted herself that Brussels was not keen on the plan. “Negotiating such a change will not be easy - it will involve re-opening the withdrawal agreement - a move for which I know there is limited appetite among our European partners,” she said.
“But I believe that with a mandate from this House...I can secure such a change in advance of our departure from the EU.”
May won the backing of the hardline European Research Group (ERG), although its deputy chairman Steve Baker put her on notice that several of his members were giving only conditional support.
“A vote for the Brady amendment is a vote to see if the PM can land a deal that will work. If not then we are not committed,” Baker said.
ERG member Andrew Rosindell said he would give the PM “one last chance” to toughen up her deal. But warned that if she fails to get concessions from Brussels, he and others will vote it down again when it returns to the Commons.
In a further pledge to reassure backbench Brexiteers, May even suggested possible support for a new Brexit plan to allow a basic free-trade and transition deal.
The proposals, drafted in secret by pro-Leave and pro-Remain Tory MPs and ministers, amounted to “a serious proposal that we are engaging with sincerely and positively”.
But May faced ridicule too after she had warned only a fortnight ago that without the backstop there could be no deal with the EU.
Weber, a German MEP who leads the biggest centre-right party group in Strasbourg, said: “If there is now a unilateral attempt to reopen the agreement, the consequence will be that not just the backstop has to be renegotiated - then the Gibraltar question, the question of how much money Britain has to pay for exiting, the question of citizens’ rights will have to be renegotiated.”
“If we reopen (it), then everything will be reopened. And to be honest, I don’t see much sense in that.”
Earlier, No.10 confirmed that May was herself aware of the risks of reopening the backstop.
Asked about the PM’s previous warnings on that, her spokesman said: “When the PM set that out to the House it was a genuine issue and that of course remains the case.
“You have the PM’s words from the House at the time, I wouldn’t step back from that.”
The SNP’s Angus MacNeil said that “she’s been sent to scurry back to beg the Europeans because the shire Tories want something different”.
A bid by Labour’s Yvette Cooper to force the PM to avoid a no-deal Brexit was defeated after several Labour backbenchers abstained.
A separate, non-binding amendment backed by Tory Caroline Spelman - to rule out no-deal - passed by 318 to 310 votes.
Within minutes of the result, recriminations began against the 14 Labour ‘Leave’ MPs who sided with the Tories to block the Cooper move.
One pro-Remain MP told HuffPost: “14 Labour MPs voted against the Cooper and Grieve amendments, the ones that actually had teeth. So that’s 14 ‘Labour’ MPs voting against the interests of Labour. Appalling.”
Aware of the need to carry pro-EU ministers with her, May said she aimed to return to parliament “as soon as possible” with a revised deal, which will be subject to a “meaningful vote” of MPs.
If no new deal is reached by February 13, the PM will make a statement to parliament that day and table an amendable motion for debate the following day. Her spokesman said that a vote would also take place “the same day”, on February 14.
The new timetable sparked fresh speculation that parliament’s half-term recess will be cancelled, as the Commons is currently due to rise for a 10-day break in mid-February.