Relations between Westminster and Brussels are under increased strain after European Council president Donald Tusk said there will be “a special place in hell” for people who promoted Brexit without any plan for delivering it.
Mr Tusk faced calls from a Cabinet minister to apologise for his “disgraceful” and “spiteful” remarks, while Brexit-supporting MPs lashed out at the former Polish prime minister.
The row erupted on the eve of Theresa May’s visit to Brussels as she seeks to rewrite key parts of the Brexit deal.
The European Council president was speaking alongside Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar following talks in Brussels in which they discussed preparations for what Mr Tusk described as the “fiasco” of a no-deal Brexit on March 29.
Mr Tusk said the EU was not making “any new offer” and was hoping to hear from Mrs May “a realistic suggestion on how to end the impasse in which the process of the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU has found itself following the latest votes in the House of Commons”.
He concluded: “I have been wondering what that special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan to carry it out safely.”
Mr Tusk also made clear that he had lost hope that the UK’s decision to leave may be reversed in a second referendum due to the “pro-Brexit stance of the UK Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition”.
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom, who backed Brexit, demanded an apology from Mr Tusk.
“I think that what he has said is pretty unacceptable and pretty disgraceful,” she told the BBC.
“I’m sure that when he reflects on it he may well wish he hadn’t done it.”
Home Secretary Sajid Javid described Mr Tusk as “out of order”, while the comments were labelled a “completely outrageous insult” by leading Tory Brexiteer Peter Bone.
And DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson tweeted: “This devilish euro maniac is doing his best to keep the United Kingdom bound by the chains of EU bureaucracy and control.”
But Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, responded to Mr Tusk’s comments by saying that the Brexiteers “would even manage to divide hell”.
Asked whether the comments would contribute towards a positive atmosphere for the Prime Minister’s visit to Brussels on Thursday, Mrs May’s official spokesman told reporters: “I think it is a question for Donald Tusk as to whether he considers the use of that kind of language to be helpful.”
Mrs May’s trip to Brussels for talks with key players including Mr Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is seen as “part of a process” by Number 10 and it is not clear she has any detailed new proposals to put forward.
Ahead of their talks, Mr Juncker said the Withdrawal Agreement was not open for renegotiation.
“She knows that the commission is not prepared to reopen the issue,” he said.
But Downing Street insisted the EU must be prepared to shift its stance on the contentious Irish backstop to avoid a no-deal Brexit next month.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “Leo Varadkar said that they want the UK to leave with a deal, Donald Tusk said earlier today their priority is avoiding no deal.
“The fact is that the deal that was on the table has been rejected by 230 votes.
“So if, as they state, they wish for us to leave with a deal, there are going to have to be changes made in order to address concerns which MPs have on the backstop.”
Mr Varadkar – who will host Mrs May in Dublin on Friday – said that while he was “open to further discussions” with the UK Government, “the events in London and the instability in British politics in recent weeks demonstrates exactly why we need a legal guarantee and a solution that is operable, that we know will work and will last”.
While Mr Varadkar met the EU’s leaders, Mrs May held meetings with all five of the main Northern Irish parties at Stormont House in Belfast.
DUP leader Arlene Foster reiterated her position that “the backstop would undermine the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom”.
But Sinn Fein’s president Mary Lou McDonald said the backstop remained the “bottom line” and accused Mrs May of coming to Belfast with “no plan, no credibility and no honour”.