Theresa May’s Brexit agenda has been dealt a series of fresh blows ahead of a looming Commons vote on her withdrawal plan.
The DUP, on whom the Tories rely for a Commons majority, insisted their objections to Irish border backstop arrangements remained, while the EU closed ranks in the face of demands for new concessions.
After a meeting with the Prime Minister, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: “The Withdrawal Agreement, as currently proposed, flies in the face of the Government’s commitments on Northern Ireland as we leave the EU.”
Mr Dodds again attacked the proposed Irish border backstop, which would see the UK remain under EU customs rules if no wider trade deal was agreed by the end of a withdrawal transition period, as unnecessary.
We’re happy to offer reassurances and guarantees to the UK, but not reassurances and guarantees that contradict or change what was agreed back in November
However, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would not accept any changes to the deal that would make the backstop inoperable.
Mr Varadkar said he had spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel by telephone on Thursday and the two leaders agreed to “stand by” the Brexit deal.
He said: “We’re happy to offer reassurances and guarantees to the UK, but not reassurances and guarantees that contradict or change what was agreed back in November.”
Mr Varadkar said the conversation, which lasted about 40 minutes, focused on securing the ratification of the deal.
The remarks are a blow to the Prime Minister, who is trying to get concessions on the Irish backstop plans in the hope it will convince MPs to vote her Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament later this month.
Mr Varadkar’s comments came as the EU confirmed “no further meetings are foreseen” with the UK on updating Mrs May’s Brexit deal because negotiations have concluded.
A spokeswoman for European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the leaders of the remaining 27 countries “have been very clear” that what is on the table “will not be renegotiated”.
At a press conference in Brussels, Mina Andreeva, deputy chief spokeswoman for the European Commission, was asked what talks would be held before the Commons has its say on the deal in the week of January 14.
She said: “We have said many times the deal that is on the table is the best and only deal possible.
“And the EU27 leaders confirmed on December 13 in their conclusions that it will not be renegotiated.”
Ms Andreeva said the EU side have “started the ratification process” on the terms in the Withdrawal Agreement, adding: “For now, no further meetings are foreseen between the Commission’s negotiators and the UK negotiators as the negotiations have indeed been concluded.”
She said Mr Juncker is “always willing to listen to Mrs May’s views on the backstop”, but when asked what else he can do to help her deal get through Parliament, she rebuffed any chance of altering the backstop as it currently stands.
And Mrs May’s deal drew criticism from Tory former minister Ben Gummer, who co-authored the Conservative manifesto at the last election.
Mr Gummer, who lost his Ipswich seat at the 2017 election, said it would leave the country poorer for generations.
He told the BBC: “I think it is probably unique in modern parliamentary history, because Members of Parliament are being asked to walk through the division lobbies to make the country, and their constituents, permanently poorer and less secure.
“Not just in one generation, but in two or three.”
Mr Gummer said if Parliament failed to find a route through the Brexit situation, a new referendum should be held.
The comments came as Environment Secretary Michael Gove said the consequences of a no-deal Brexit would be “considerable” in the agricultural sector.