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May says she remains on course to deliver on Brexit despite her humiliating Commons

British prime minister Theresa May arrives for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels PICTURE: Olivier Matthys/AP

Theresa May has insisted that she remains "on course to deliver on Brexit" despite her humiliating defeat in the House of Commons.

Arriving at a European Council summit in Brussels, the British prime minister said her flagship EU (Withdrawal) bill was making "good progress" despite Wednesday's setback, which she said was the government's only defeat in 36 votes on the legislation.

Leaders of the other 27 EU states are expected to give the green light to the start of the second phase of Brexit talks in Mrs May's absence on Friday, the second day of the two-day summit.

But doubt 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.

Arriving shortly before Mrs May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there was "a good chance that the second phase can now begin".

And Dutch PM Mark Rutte played down suggestions that Mrs May's Commons defeat had diminished her authority in Brussels.

"I think she still has formidable stature here," he said.

Asked about Wednesday night's vote to give MPs a "meaningful" vote on the final EU withdrawal deal, Mrs May said: "I am disappointed with the amendment but actually the EU (Withdrawal) bill is making good progress through the House of Commons and we are on course to deliver on Brexit."

Asked whether she will be forced to make further concessions to backbench rebels over Europe, Mrs May said: "We have actually had 36 votes on the EU (Withdrawal) bill and we have won 35 of those votes, with an average majority of 22.

"The bill is making good progress. We are on course to deliver Brexit, we are on course to deliver the vote of the British people."

Mrs May, who was the last leader to arrive at the summit after attending the Grenfell Tower memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral, said she was looking forward to addressing the other 27 over dinner about the "deep and special relationship" which she hopes to forge between the UK and EU after Brexit.

But she was coming under pressure to spell out in more detail what she wants from a future trade deal.

Mr Rutte said Mrs May was "holding her cards close to her heart" but it was now "up to her and the UK government to sketch out that future relationship".

"First we have to see what she wants," Mr Rutte said.

"Does she want to stay in the single market? Does she want to stay in the customs union? Or both?

"If that is the case, that will entail certain obligations. If she doesn't want to do that, the relationship will be more like a free trade agreement."

Luxembourg's PM Xavier Bettel suggested that her defeat in the Commons would add to the pressure on Mrs May by further limiting the time available for her to strike a deal.

In a night of high drama on Wednesday, rebel ringleader Dominic Grieve told the government it was "too late" as ministers made last-minute concessions in an attempt to head off the revolt.

He saw his amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) bill squeezed through the Commons on a majority of four amid tense scenes.

It means MPs and peers will be given more control over the British government's implementation of the withdrawal agreement, as ministers will have to pass a statute, which can be amended, before it takes effect.

Mrs May, who attempted to reassert her authority by sacking Tory vice-chairman and Brexit rebel Stephen Hammond, could face questions about the vote's implications at a dinner with the other 27 EU leaders, whom she will urge to begin trade talks as quickly as possible.

"It's not good for Theresa May," Mr Bettel said.

"As soon as she negotiates something she will need to go back to London to get approval from the parliament and this is not making her life easier.

"It doesn't change anything in the agenda, it just makes life more complicated for the UK government."

He made clear that Britain has some way to go to dispel anxieties prompted by Brexit secretary David Davis's suggestion that last week's deal on withdrawal – judged by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker as representing "sufficient progress" to move on to the second phase of talks – was no more than a "statement of intent".

"I think we are making good progress," Mr Bettel said.

"But, if every time we announce something there is a risk that it will unravel in London, it is not very good for making concrete progress."

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told the Dáil that despite Mr Davis's comments, he regarded the UK's commitments as "cast-iron". But he threw doubt on Mrs May's hopes for a two-year transition after the date of Brexit in March 2019, repeating his preference for a four or five-year period.

European Council president Donald Tusk said the next phase of talks would be a "real test" of the EU's unity.

Last Friday's agreement on the divorce issues of citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill was a major breakthrough for the British prime minister, setting the scene for long-awaited trade talks after six months of frustrating negotiations.

But the political capital she has built up was dealt a damaging blow by Wednesday's Westminster vote.

She has also been warned she could face another defeat next week over attempts to fix the Brexit date of March 29 2019 in the law.

Rebels said the defeat was avoidable and blamed the government for not engaging in negotiations with them, only offering a last-ditch concession minutes before the vote.

The handling of the situation has led to questions about chief whip Julian Smith's role, but Downing Street insisted Mrs May had "full confidence" in him despite the defeat.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said he was still hopeful that British voters would change their minds and decide not to press ahead with Brexit.

Warning that Britain faces many "big issues and challenges" in the months ahead, he used a German phrase suggesting that the final outcome was not yet decided: "This cake isn't eaten yet."

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