Theresa May is to go back to the EU to try to renegotiate her Brexit deal after MPs gave their backing to proposals to replace the controversial backstop.
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.
Reopening the deal to revisit the Irish backstop could potentially also lead to Spain trying to renegotiate arrangements in the agreement relating to Gibraltar.
Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party, the largest political group in the European Parliament, said the existing deal was “a compromise between many interests” and that reopening it will put “the Gibraltar question” back on the table.
Meanwhile, one of Mrs May’s strongest negotiating weapons was ripped from her hands by MPs who voted to block a no-deal Brexit.
In a night of high drama at Westminster, the Commons voted by 317 to 301 in favour of a proposal backed by the Prime Minister to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements” to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
Mrs May said that the result 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, Mr 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.”
And French President Emmanuel Macron also said the agreement was “not renegotiable”, in comments just moments before MPs voted.
The Commons approved a cross-party amendment, tabled by Midlands MPs Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey, rejecting a no-deal Brexit by 318 to 310.
The vote is not legally binding on the Government but will impose massive political pressure on the Prime Minister to delay Brexit from its scheduled date of March 29 if she cannot secure a new deal from Brussels.
It sends a signal that parliament as a whole opposes leaving the EU without a negotiated agreement, which will happen by default on March 29 if no alternative is agreed, but does not compel the government to prevent such a departure or provide a mechanism for doing so.
She 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.”
Mrs 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.”
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said he would meet Mrs May to “find a sensible Brexit solution that works for the whole country”, listing changes that Labour wanted to see.
Reopening the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement will put “the Gibraltar question” back on the negotiating table, an influential German MEP said last night.
Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party, the largest political group in the European Parliament, said the existing deal was “a compromise between many interests”.
“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,” Mr Weber said.
“If we reopen (it), then everything will be reopened.”
“And to be honest, I don’t see much sense in that.”
He said what is needed from Britain is “clear orientation” on the two sides’ long-term relationship.
Earlier this month, Mr Weber addressed the Partido Popular party congress and praised its new leader Pablo Casado, adding that “the problem of Gibraltar is also a European problem” and that “we are with Spain.”
He was taken to task over his comments by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, who wrote to Mr Weber asking him to clarify his comments.
“There is no ‘Gibraltar problem’,” Mr Picardo said in the letter.
“The only problem seems to be that Spanish politicians do not accept that the people of Gibraltar have repeatedly chosen in free and fair referenda to remain British.”