Theresa May was delivered a devastating blow by EU leaders last night after seeking help to win over Tory rebels as her party descended into civil war.
The Prime Minister had begged them to give ground on the Irish backstop as she faces a battle to get her Brexit deal through Parliament.
But European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker rejected her plea to put a 12-month limit on the unpopular insurance plan to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
The top eurocrat accused the UK of being “nebulous and imprecise” as he savaged the PM’s attempts to unblock the stalemate that has thrown her Brexit plans – and her government – into disarray.
“We don’t want the UK to think there can be any form of renegotiation, that is crystal clear. We can add clarifications but no real changes,” he said.
“Our UK friends need to say what they want, rather than asking what we want,” he said.
It came as one former Cabinet minister claimed the Tories could be heading for a terminal split after Mrs May saw off the vote of no confidence.
The PM had downplayed expectations of what she could achieve. Arriving at the summit, she said: “I don’t expect an immediate breakthrough. What I do hope is we can start work as quickly as possible on assurances that are necessary.”
But Mrs May was unprepared for the exasperation of EU leaders who insisted repeatedly they would not reopen talks on the withdrawal agreement. They rallied round Irish premier, Leo Varadkar, who ruled out more concessions.
After a lengthy meeting with the PM, he said: “As the European Union we are very keen to offer explanations, assurances, clarifications… anything that may assist MPs to understand the agreement and, hopefully, support it. But the backstop is not on the table.”
Brussels sources said the PM told EU chiefs at a crunch meeting that she needed legally binding guarantees the backstop was temporary to get her deal through the Commons.
Mrs May told the 27 leaders she believed there was a majority in Parliament to secure a deal, even though she called off a vote this week to avoid defeat.
Begging for political and legal assurances, she said: “We have to change the perception that the backstop could be a trap from which the UK could not escape. Until we do, the deal – our deal – is at risk.”
They told her they had already written in enough guarantees into the divorce deal and asked what else she needed – but she was unable to answer. As a result, EU leaders toughened up their official Brexit conclusions.
In a blunt rejection, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “The legal framework and agreement negotiated are not supposed to change.”
And German Chancellor Angela Merkel added: “I do not see that the withdrawal agreement can be changed.”
It was reminiscent of the humiliating ambush at the Salzburg summit in September when EU leaders unexpectedly declared that her proposals would not work.
No 10 confirmed the MPs’ vote on the deal would take place after Christmas.
Meanwhile, Tory Brexiteers continued their war of attrition, despite Mrs May confirming she would not lead the party into the next election.
It comes after she held off Wednesday’s challenge by 200 votes to 117. A Eurosceptic source said: “The campaign of guerilla warfare will continue.”
Ex-Cabinet Minister Nicky Morgan warned: “There’s an inevitability the hardest Brexiteers are going to walk. There may be some sort of reconfiguration of parties on the right… That may be something we’re going to have to accept to get a Brexit deal through.”
The chances of Labour tabling a vote of no confidence in the PM next week increased after the summit failure.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said: “What we want is a deal that protects jobs and the economy. If the Prime Minister can’t secure that deal, we’ll see on Monday.” A Labour Party official said they are judging things “day by day”.