Europe’s leaders are considering whether to agree to UK calls for Brexit to be delayed as Theresa May’s efforts to build support for her deal at Westminster suffered a fresh setback.
MPs backed a delay to Brexit beyond the scheduled date of March 29 in dramatic parliamentary scenes which saw a majority of the Conservative party in the opposite lobby from the Prime Minister.
European Council president Donald Tusk met Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague on Friday before talks with the bloc’s key power brokers Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron on Monday.
Following the talks, Mr Rutte said the current Withdrawal Agreement is the “only deal on the table”.
On Tuesday Mr Tusk will travel to Dublin to meet Leo Varadkar before the summit in Brussels on Thursday.
Mr Tusk said: “I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”
But European Parliament Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt questioned why the leaders of the 27 should grant an extension if Mrs May was “not ready for a cross-party approach to break the current deadlock” in the Commons.
The Prime Minister is set to bring her Brexit deal back to the Commons for a third meaningful vote next week, and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has sought to provide further legal assurances about the Irish backstop.
But Mrs May’s hopes of persuading Eurosceptics and the DUP to back the deal were dealt a blow after the “Star Chamber” of Brexiteer lawyers rejected Mr Cox’s latest assessment.
The group of lawyers, led by veteran Tory Sir Bill Cash, said a suggestion that the UK could use the Vienna Convention – the international agreement that lays down the rules about treaties – to unilaterally pull out of the backstop was “badly misconceived”.
The panel of lawyers, which significantly also includes DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, rejected the supplementary legal advice from Mr Cox.
The Attorney General’s advice hinges on Article 62 of the Vienna Convention, which says that if there has been “a fundamental change of circumstances” following the conclusion of a treaty “which was not foreseen by the parties”, then the countries involved would be allowed to withdraw from it.
Mr Cox said: “It is in my view clear and undoubted in those exceptional circumstances that international law provides the (UK) with the right to terminate the Withdrawal Agreement.”
But the Brexit-backing lawyers said “given the high burden that a state must meet to use it, and given the extreme reluctance of international courts and tribunals to accept it” the Vienna Convention route “supplies no assurance whatsoever that the UK could terminate the Withdrawal Agreement in a lawful manner”.
More than half of Tory MPs – including seven Cabinet ministers – voted against Mrs May’s motion to put back the date when Britain leaves the EU.
Chief Whip Julian Smith abstained, with sources suggesting he did so in order to be able to “broker peace going forward” by appearing impartial.
Mrs May’s de facto deputy David Lidington denied the Government was falling apart and said the “entire Cabinet has accepted the position that Parliament voted for last night”.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that leaving on March 29 with no deal remains the “legal default position” but the likelihood of it happening had “diminished” after this week’s votes.
He said he was still hoping that the UK will “leave as soon as possible in an orderly fashion” by MPs backing Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement next week.
Asked if defeat for the PM’s deal might mean an extension of a year or more, Mr Lidington said: “Those are the indications which the Brussels institutions of the EU – the Commission, the Council secretariat and certain member state governments – have been giving to us.”
Among those in the opposite lobby from the Prime Minister was Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, who closed debate on the motion on behalf of the Government with a plea to “act in the national interest” and “put forward an extension that is realistic” before voting against it.
Others taking advantage of the free vote to oppose the Prime Minister included Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss.
Downing Street sources denied that Mrs May had lost control of her Cabinet or her party, insisting that the results were a “natural consequence” of the decision to offer a free vote on an issue where many hold strong views.
The motion authorising the Prime Minister to request an extension to the two-year Article 50 negotiation process, was passed by 413 votes to 202 – a majority of 211.
Mrs May has made clear that she hopes to bring her Agreement back to the Commons by March 20 in the hope of securing the support of MPs who rejected it by 230 votes in January and 149 earlier this week.
If she succeeds, she will go to the Brussels summit to request a short delay to a date no later than June 30, to give herself time to pass legislative changes necessary for a smooth and orderly Brexit.
But if her deal is rejected for a third time, she believes any extension would have to be far longer and would involve the UK taking part in European Parliament elections in May.
Ireland’s Taoiseach Mr Varadkar said: “I think we need to be open to any request they make, listen attentively and be generous in our response.”
A spokesman for the European Commission said it “takes note of tonight’s votes”, adding that president Jean-Claude Juncker was “in constant contact with all leaders”.