Brexit: Cold comfort for May at EU summit

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

Theresa May arrives at EU summit on FridayImage source, AFP

It's a bitter cold, grey morning in Brussels.

And there is very, very little for Number 10 to be pleased about.

If this meeting was meant to provide Theresa May with the beginnings of an escape route from her Brexit conundrum, the signs are nothing less than awful.

At one of her most vulnerable political moments, Number 10 was hopeful at least of an indication of a potential solution to the most intense of a long list of Brexit problems - the controversial so-called backstop, designed to guarantee there would be no hard Irish border.

But right now, that's simply not on offer. EU leaders made it plain that their warnings that their divorce deal with Britain was not up for negotiation were real.

Requests for change to ease the politics at Westminster were not fulfilled, with key phrases from a more accommodating draft of the European Council conclusions gone by midnight.

This has been a bleak 48 hours for the prime minister.

In order to fend off MPs who wanted to oust her, she had to promise that she would leave office before the next general election and she promised that she could get extra legal guarantees from the EU on the backstop issue.

But leader after leader arriving at the summit on Friday made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of allowing her to fulfil that second promise.

Image source, Reuters

And that's not just because the deal itself has been concluded for a couple of weeks and they don't want to reopen it but because they just don't believe the prime minister's personal reassurances last night that she can get an amended version of the agreement through Parliament.

It's not that EU leaders don't want to be friendly but they don't have faith in the government and Theresa May's ability to get Parliament on side.

The rejection gives succour perhaps to those in government who want their critics to accept that the prime minister's deal may be, genuinely, as good as it gets.

But that's a sliver of hope, in a situation that is looking grim all round.

The prime minister will no doubt say that she will keep arguing for more reassurance. It's a message that we are, by now, all extremely familiar with.

And yes, it is true, that she has been underestimated many times.

Media caption,
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One official once described the Brexit process as continually building more road ahead of Theresa May, to give her more time and space to navigate the political path.

But with the EU's flat "no" on Thursday night and Parliament's rejection, they might be all out of new Tarmac.

This is Salzburg 2.0, when after months of being told a pick-and-mix approach to the EU was impossible, the prime minister insisted on pushing on, and presenting her Chequers plan to her fellow leaders.

But guess what? As they said they would, they said "no", leaving her frustrated, embarrassed and without a plan.

That's what's happened in the last week - on fast forward.

She said she could get more guarantees from the EU. They have said no, leaving the UK, again, without a clear plan.

Her many critics will ask - when does determination to achieve what seems impossible become a dangerous delusion?