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'Special place in hell' for those who promoted Brexit without a plan, says Tusk

Theresa May will meet European Council president Donald Tusk at the summit

European Council president Donald Tusk has said there will be "a special place in hell" for those who promoted Brexit without any plan for how to deliver it safely.

Mr Tusk's comments came as he repeated the EU's insistence that the Withdrawal Agreement reached with Theresa May last year cannot be reopened to remove the backstop arrangement for the Irish border.

He 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.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister began a round of meetings with Northern Ireland's political leaders in her hunt for a breakthrough on the Irish backstop impasse.

She is due to meet Mr Tusk as well as European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on a visit to Brussels on Thursday.

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 said the Irish border issue and the need to preserve the peace process remained the EU's "top priority", adding: "We will not gamble with peace or put a sell-by date on reconciliation. This is why we insist on the backstop."

In a message to Mrs May, Mr Tusk said: "Give us a deliverable guarantee for peace in Northern Ireland and the UK will leave the EU as a trusted friend.

"I hope that the UK Government will present ideas that will both respect this point of view and at the same time command a stable and clear majority in the House of Commons.

"I strongly believe that a common solution is possible and I will do everything in my power to find it."

But he concluded: "By the way, 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 Varadkar said that while he was "open to further discussions" with the UK Government, the Withdrawal Agreement emphatically rejected by the House of Commons last month remained "the best deal possible".

The Taoiseach said: "I think 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."

On the final day of a two-day visit to Belfast, Theresa May held meetings with all five of the main Northern Irish parties at Stormont House.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said she told the PM that "the time for reiterating red lines and regurgitating reassurances has long gone".

"What we need now, and the only lines we are interested in, are black and white on paper, an actual deal," said Ms Long.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told the PM that there were "no alternatives to the backstop".

Mrs May suggested on Tuesday that she is seeking "changes" to the controversial backstop in her Brexit deal, rather than its total removal from the Withdrawal Agreement.

In a speech in Belfast, she restated her "unshakeable" commitment to avoiding a hard border in Ireland after Brexit, pledging: "I will not let that happen."

But asked how she could convince the people of Northern Ireland to accept a Brexit deal which was stripped of the backstop, Mrs May said: "I'm not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn't contain that insurance policy for the future.

"What Parliament has said is that they believe there should be changes made to the backstop."

Supporters of the so-called Malthouse Compromise - which has brought MPs from the Remain and Brexit wings of the Conservative Party together behind a plan requiring the backstop to be ditched - denied the PM's comments had killed off their initiative.

As they prepared to meet for a third day in the Cabinet Office, MPs in the group insisted they remain hopeful she will give serious consideration to the blueprint which they intend to complete by the end of Wednesday.

With around a dozen civil servants taking part in daily meetings lasting two hours, it is "clear that a lot of Government time and effort and brainpower is being invested in this", they said.

The compromise offers the EU a choice between a Plan A, involving the existing Agreement with an alternative to the backstop and a transition period stretching to December 2021, or a Plan B under which the UK leaves without a deal on March 29 but remains in the single market and customs area to the end of 2021 while arrangements are made for final departure.

MPs in the group said their compromise has a good chance of securing a majority in the Commons, making it a more serious proposition for EU leaders than amendments to the backstop which would be rejected by a wide margin.

But they accepted their proposals will not be ready in time to be presented as a Government position when Mrs May goes to Brussels on Thursday.

Speaking under condition of anonymity, one MP said the Commons votes scheduled for February 14 are likely to be a re-run of last week's divisions on a series of backbench amendments, with the long-awaited "meaningful vote" on a proposed final deal coming later in the month.

Although this would leave insufficient time to pass the necessary legislation in the normal way by Brexit day on March 29, MPs in the group insisted it could be rushed through, saying: "If Parliament has the will to get the legislation passed, it will."