The Conservative Government has staged a climbdown over Brexit less than 24 hours after serving the European Union with divorce papers.

Brexit Secretary David Davis was forced to beat a retreat on his claim that the UK's exit deal would deliver the “exact same benefits” as EU membership.

Instead, he downgraded that statement to an "ambition".

The shift came as a second European leader, French President Francois Hollande, rejected a key UK call, for parallel negotiations on Brexit and a future trade deal.

On Wednesday German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said that Britain would have to agree the terms of its divorce terms from the EU before trade could be discussed.

The same day Mrs May claimed that after Brexit "it will be a different relationship (with the EU) but I think it can have the same benefits in terms of that free access to trade".

In January Mr Davis similarly told MPs that a "comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement... will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”.

However, asked about those comments in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Davis said: “I make no apology for being ambitious about what we’re trying to do. The classical approach for a politician during a negotiation is to reduce expectations…that’s what people think is the ‘sophisticated’ way. We are playing for the national interest here I’m going to aim as high as conceivably possible.”

He added: “I want all of those things. I make no bones about it. I’m not going to apologise for aiming for that.”

Liberal Democrat spokesman Susan Kramer accused Mr Davis of going "back on his assurances" about a "post-Brexit utopia".

Meanwhile, the Elysee Palace said that Mr Hollande had spoken with Mrs May by telephone and warned her that the EU would not agree to her call for parallel negotiations.

He told her that first there had to be discussions on the arrangements for withdrawal, including on the rights of EU citizens in the UK and an expected multi-billion pound 'divorce bill'.

He added that on the “basis of progress being achieved on that, we would be able to open discussions on the issue of the future relations between the UK and the EU".

Ireland's ambassador to the UK, Daniel Mulhall, agreed with Hollande and Merkel.

He told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "I think normally, in any situation, you would first of all ... discuss the departure first before you discuss what kind of relationship you might want to have in the future."

But he said the talks could move on to discussions of future arrangements "fairly quickly".

A Downing Street spokesman said that at the beginning of negotiations "you would expect people to take a robust position".

He added: "Our position is that we intend to have these talks in parallel. We are beginning the negotiations, let’s see where we get to”.

No 10 also said that the official process of withdrawing from the European Union did allow for future relationships to be considered.

Mr Davis admitted that there was “argument” over the sequencing of talks.

But he denied that Mrs May was trying to "blackmail" Brussels by linking trade and security in the divorce papers.

That triggered an almighty row as critics accusing the Prime Minister of threatening to stop co-operating with EU countries on counter-terrorism just a week after four people were killed in an attack on Westminster.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator , warned: “The security of the citizens is so important, the fight against terrorism is so crucial, that you cannot negotiate with something else."

France's ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, said: “We are all facing the same security challenges and we all need security. So it can't be a trade-off.”

Mr Davis claimed that other EU leaders had responded warmly to the Prime Minister's letter.

"Guy Verhofstadt called it blackmail, let's not say everybody did," he said.

Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green claimed that the row was a "misunderstanding".

As well as Mr Hollande Mrs May has also spoken Ireland's Enda Kenny, Poland's Beata Szydlo and Spain's Mariano Rajoy and Antonio Tajani, the European Parliament president.

Mr Kenny called for EU support for Ireland as a group of European leaders met in Malta.

The first formal EU response to the UK will come today when the European Council President Donald Tusk sets out draft talks guidelines for the other 27 countries.

The six or seven page document is expected to focus on the sequences of talks.