The DUP has said it would rather have Brexit cancelled than risk Northern Ireland’s position within the UK.
The party’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds made the admission after the House of Commons voted for a third time against the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement.
But the margin of defeat narrowed as many of the DUP’s hardline Brexiter allies, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, changed course and supported Theresa May’s deal.
However, Brexit appears to be on course for a lengthy delay as MPs voted 344 to 286 against the withdrawal agreement.
The Prime Minister told them they were “reaching the limits of this process” in a warning some see as meaning a general election is increasingly likely to break the political stalemate. But she could still bring her deal back to Parliament again next week.
The withdrawal agreement was defeated by 58 votes compared to 149 earlier this month and 230 in January. Downing Street sources said the numbers were “going in the right direction” with 90% of Tory MPs now on board.
The Prime Minister said the UK would have to find “an alternative way forward”, which now almost certainly involves taking part in May’s European elections.
Tens of thousands of Leave protesters gathered outside Parliament yesterday to protest against the delay to Brexit.
MPs will vote on Monday on various Brexit options to see if they can agree on a way forward.
Mr Dodds said the DUP would never back anything that put the Union in jeopardy and said it would abandon Brexit first.
“I would stay in the European Union and remain rather than risk Northern Ireland’s position, That’s how strongly I feel about the Union,” he told BBC’s Newsnight.
He said the DUP would continue to resist pressure to support the withdrawal agreement.
“I think it would be actually better staying in the European Union than living under this withdrawal agreement,” he told LBC radio.
He urged Mrs May to return to Brussels to seek changes to the backstop.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said it would be “perfectly acceptable” to leave without a deal if the right agreement could not be achieved.
Asked if he had any confidence that the Prime Minister would be able to secure the changes to the backstop that would be required to gain DUP support, Mr Wilson added: “No, I don’t. That’s why I think we may well find that this will be a job for whoever takes over from her.”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald rounded on the DUP for its performance at the “British political circus” at Westminster, which she claimed brought a no-deal Brexit nearer.
“The behaviour of the DUP has been reckless and outrageous,” she said. “They have been seduced by the games at Westminster at the cost of farmers, the economy and the views of the majority in the North.
“Our economy, the rights of citizens and our hard won agreements cannot be collateral damage to Westminster.”
Ms McDonald said her party would meet EU leaders on Monday to ensure they continued to “act in the interests of all Ireland and support our agreements, rights and economy”.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said: “We want to see a deal reached that works for all, something the Prime Minister’s deal — incorporating the backstop — could never do.
“The backstop contravenes the principle of consent. It paves the way for Northern Ireland to diverge from the rest of the UK over time and no unionist worthy of the name can agree to it.
“It has poisoned the entire Brexit negotiations and it has to be removed to enable any progress. We warned about this from the day and hour we first saw it suggested in December 2017, but our warnings were ignored by those who thought they knew better.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said that instead of “further national humiliation” and “grovelling to Brussels”, the UK shouldn’t be afraid to leave the EU without a deal.
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said if the Brexit process hadn’t reached a “positive and constructive conclusion” by April 12 the Prime Minister must revoke Article 50.
He added: “If the current version of the withdrawal agreement is no longer viable, then the choices for the Government and Parliament are narrowed to amending the political declaration to indicate a customs union and remaining in the single market, or putting the withdrawal agreement to a referendum. Indeed, it may well be both of those approaches should be combined.”
Some 34 Tory rebels, mainly Brexiters, ignored a plea from Mrs May to take “the last opportunity to guarantee Brexit”.
She now has until April 12 to go back to Brussels with new proposals and seek a longer extension to the negotiation process, or see the UK leave without a deal that day.
She said the outcome of yesterday’s vote was “a matter of profound regret” for her.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn repeated his demand for a general election.
European Council president Donald Tusk called an emergency summit of EU leaders in Brussels on April 10 to discuss the implications of the vote.