Theresa May vows to press on with Brexit after humiliating Commons defeat

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Theresa May has made clear she will not be deflected from delivering Brexit by her humiliating defeat at the hands of Tory rebels in the House of Commons.

The Prime Minister told leaders of the remaining 27 EU states at a summit in Brussels that the UK remains committed to a smooth and orderly withdrawal and that she is personally keen to start discussions on building a close and friendly future relationship as soon as possible.

Her comments came as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the setback would not “for one second” stop the Brexit process being completed in a “very successful and very timely way”.

Wednesday night’s Commons defeat, on an amendment requiring MPs to be given a “meaningful” vote on the final Brexit deal, was a serious reverse for the PM just days after she finally secured a breakthrough agreement on a divorce deal covering citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the UK’s £39 billion financial settlement.

But other EU leaders played down suggestions it had undermined Mrs May’s authority in Brussels, with Dutch PM Mark Rutte saying she still possessed “formidable stature here”.

But Luxembourg’s PM Xavier Bettel said it would “make life more complicated” for her by imposing further constraints on the time she has available to secure a deal.

European Council President Donald Tusk, front centre, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, front left, lead EU leaders to a group photo at an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels (Olivier Matthys/AP)
European Council President Donald Tusk, front centre, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, front left, lead EU leaders to a group photo at an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels (Olivier Matthys/AP)

With the EU27 expected to give the green light on Friday for a move to the second phase of Brexit talks, dealing with the transition to a post-Brexit relationship, Mrs May called for early agreement on an “implementation period” lasting around two years after the official date of withdrawal in March 2019.

In the face of predictions of lengthy and tough negotiations ahead, she said the successful conclusion of the first phase showed what was possible if both sides approached talks with commitment and perseverance.

Addressing her fellow leaders over dinner in Brussels, Mrs May said she “makes no secret of wanting to move on to the next phase and to approaching it with ambition and creativity”.

She added: “I believe this is in the best interest of the UK and the EU. A particular priority should be agreement on the implementation period so that we can bring greater certainty to businesses in the UK and across the 27.”

The PM was expected to return to the UK late on Thursday, leaving the EU27 to give their seal of approval in her absence to the agreement reached last Friday with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

Leaders including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel left no doubt that the decision was no more than a formality.

But uncertainty remains over when negotiations on the future trade relationship will begin, with leaked documents suggesting that guidelines for talks on the new relationship will not even be drawn up until March and that no more than a political agreement on trade can be expected by the time of Brexit.

The UK acknowledges that a trade deal cannot be formally concluded until withdrawal has taken place, but senior British officials made clear that they continue to push for the completion of a free trade agreement which will be ready to sign the day after Brexit occurs on March 29 2019.

Countdown to Brexit: key events
(PA Graphics)

There were signs of anxiety from EU leaders that Britain may seek to secure a more generous deal by playing its closest trade partners among the 27 off against the rest.

European Council president Donald Tusk said the next phase of talks would be a “real test” of the EU’s unity, while European Parliament president Antonio Tajani said that “unity will be our shield” in a “difficult” set of negotiations.

Despite pressure from fellow leaders to spell out what she wants from a trade deal, Mrs May gave no further detail in her address about the UK Government’s preferred “end state” for its relationship with the EU, which is due to be discussed for the first time by Cabinet next week.

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