EU tells Theresa May Brexit deal 'still possible' despite Chequers rejection

22 September 2018, 01:35 | Updated: 22 September 2018, 07:50

EU leaders have insisted a Brexit deal remains possible despite flatly rejecting the Chequers proposal put forward by Theresa May during an acrimonious summit in Salzburg.

The prime minister endured a brutal reception from the national newspapers upon her return to London, with her treatment in the Austrian city widely seen as a "humiliation".

Amid the fallout, Mrs May used a surprise statement in Downing Street on Friday to issue an ultimatum to the bloc to accept her strategy or come up with counter-proposals.

She declared the UK would continue preparations for a "no-deal" Brexit, acknowledging that the two parties had reached an "impasse" over "two big problems" in negotiations.

The address was commended by senior Conservatives and Brexiteer MPs, although the latter have continued to push for her strategy to be dumped in favour of a simpler Canada-style free trade deal.

European Council President Donald Tusk - who appeared to mock Mrs May over her Chequers plan in an Instagram post after the Salzburg summit - has since tried to smooth over the row, insisting that he was a "true admirer" of the prime minister.

He said her proposals were a "step in the right direction", adding: "While understanding the logic of the negotiations, I remain convinced that a compromise, good for all, is still possible.

"I say these words as a close friend of the UK and a true admirer of PM May."

His comments came little more than 24 hours after the EU firmly declared the Chequers proposal for the future UK-EU relationship "will not work", with Mrs May reportedly set to face demands from top ministers to offer an alternative during a cabinet meeting on Monday.

Citing a Westminster source, The Daily Telegraph claimed the meeting would represent a "crunch point" in the Brexit negotiations, when ministers would "have to look again and reassess like Boris Johnson and David Davis did".

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt are among those who could resign if no backup plan is agreed to, the newspaper reported.

Mr Davis - who quit his cabinet post over Chequers and is promising to publish his own plan for leaving, having offered little so far - is due to appear at a Leave Means Leave rally in Bolton, Greater Manchester, today.

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage will also appear at the event, with both men set to speak.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer have already stuck the knife in, with the former accusing the prime minister of being "incapable of delivering a good Brexit deal".

His Liberal Democrat counterpart Sir Vince Cable said the Chequers plan was "dead as a dodo, killed in London by Tory fundamentalists", while Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said Mrs May's speech was "pathetic, painful and petulant".

The pound slumped by almost two cents against the dollar after the address, which Mrs May used to repeat her belief that "no deal is better than a bad deal".

She ruled out a Norway-style relationship as it would keep the UK as a rule-taker from Brussels, and quashed talk of a basic trade deal as it would leave Northern Ireland "permanently separated economically from the rest of the UK by a border down the Irish Sea".

Mrs May also repeated her opposition to the EU's proposal for a backstop solution to avoiding a hard border in Ireland, pledged that EU nationals living in the UK would have their rights protected whatever the outcome of Brexit talks, and dismissed talk of a second referendum.

Her address came little more than a week before what promises to be a fractious Conservative conference, amid deep splits within the party over Brexit.