Theresa May confronted Donald Tusk over his controversial “special place in hell” Brexit jibe, branding it “unhelpful” as the revived UK-EU talks remained deadlocked.

In Brussels, the Prime Minister and the European Council President stood together, grim-faced before the cameras ahead of what both sides later described as “robust but constructive” talks. In diplomatic language, “robust” is often read as a heated row.

As Mrs May arrived in Brussels a protester waving a placard reading "Don't crash out" leapt in front of her convoy at the European Commission's Berlaymont HQ but was quickly whisked away.

The talks were overshadowed by Mr Tusk's outburst in which he said there was a "special place in hell" for "those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely".

Mrs May emerged from a string of meetings to condemn his "language…which was not helpful and caused widespread dismay in UK".

She then declared: "I am clear that I am going to deliver Brexit. I am going to deliver it on time. That is what I am going to do for the British public. I will be negotiating hard in the coming days to do just that."

But Mr Tusk took to social media to give a more downbeat response to the talks, tweeting: "Meeting PM @theresa_may on how to overcome impasse on #brexit. Still no breakthrough in sight. Talks will continue."

On Friday evening, Mrs May will be in Dublin for talks over dinner with Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach. Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, who is working primarily on a time-limit to the backstop, will also be in the Irish capital for discussions with his counterpart Seamus Woulfe.

The talks in the Belgian capital appeared to be a scoping exercise to see which of a number of potential UK options might be acceptable to the EU27.

Given that Brussels is adamant that the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the backstop, will not be reopened, it is thought the initial focus is on the creation of a legally-binding “clarification or confirmation” about the temporary nature of the backstop.

Yet this would still run up against heavy Brexiteer and DUP resistance as they want the backstop scrapped altogether and believe some sort of legal codicil to the agreement would not be enough and would not get through the Commons.

On Monday, Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, will be having talks with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator on an alternative to the backstop.

The run of play next week still seems to be Mrs May giving a Commons update on Wednesday with a debate and a vote on an amendable Government motion the following day. This will simply be an indicative vote, similar to the one on January 29, meaning the Government can choose which passed motion it wants to support.

The promised second “meaningful vote” on the PM's Plan B is not expected until the last week in February.

Indeed, sources in Brussels were suggesting the EU might take the Brexit process to the brink in March.

In a joint statement following the Brussels talks, Mrs May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, agreed to another meeting before the end of the month.

Her spokesman said this was a “positive” outcome in a bid to “find a way through, which Parliament can support”.

Asked if, therefore, it were possible the meaningful vote might not happen until March, he replied: “We will have a meaningful vote as soon as possible.”

The PM was offered a chink of light by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who on a visit to Slovakia, said: "We can find solutions without reopening the Withdrawal Agreement; that is not on the agenda for us."

Following the talks, Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief co-ordinator, welcomed the letter from Jeremy Corbyn to Mrs May, setting out his party's five demands for a softer Brexit, saying "cross-party co-operation is the way forward".

It was suggested Mr Tusk had also spoken positively about the Labour leader's letter in his meeting with the PM. No 10 refused to deny this, saying only it was “not pro-actively raised” by her.

A Downing St spokesman welcomed Mr Corbyn's "engagement" and said it was looking at his proposals "with interest" but noted there were "very considerable points of difference between us".

In other developments:

*Stephen Hammond, the UK Health Minister, suggested in an interview with the House Magazine that he would resign to vote against a no-deal outcome, saying: “I know where my responsibilities lie”;

*Michael Russell, the Scottish Government’s Brexit Minister, after another meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee in Whitehall, decried the UK Government for living in a "fantasy world" on Brexit and accused it of showing an “abdication of responsibility";

*Sir John Major, the former PM, accused the Government of embarking on a policy of national "self-harm" over Brexit;

*work to enable the M20 motorway in Kent to be turned into a car park in the event of post-Brexit queues will begin this weekend;

*the Bank of England downgraded its growth forecast for 2019 to just 1.2 per cent, signalling the weakest expansion since 2009 while the EU's executive Commission cut the EU growth forecast for this year to 1.3 per cent from 1.9;

*industry leaders warned that exporters could be shipping goods from UK ports imminently which would not arrive until after the March 29 deadline, raising the prospect of goods being stuck in ports or facing hefty extra costs in event of a no-deal outcome and

*a secret Whitehall group is drawing up "Project After" plans to kick-start UK economy in the event of a no-deal Brexit through options ranging from cutting taxes and boosting investment to slashing tariffs, according to the FT.