PRIME Minister Theresa May has returned from Brussels empty handed, as most observers knew would be the case.

An agreement was signed which she wanted to change, hardly surprising that the 27 members of the EU gave her a resounding no.

So where does she go from here? The answer is not immediately apparent.

There are those who are still saying, or at least thinking, “Why doesn’t she just get on with it and leave?”

Here’s why, as simple as that sounds, it’s not that easy, indeed its extremely complicated (after all, if it were that easy, don’t you think she would have done it already?)

First, because for the past 45 years, with our full agreement, we have been integrating virtually every aspect of our national life into Europe.

Striking a deal that would disentangle our laws, regulations and treaties from Europe was bound to be highly complex and not, as the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, foolishly said “the easiest in human history”.

Second, the Government is trying to negotiate a deal (as Leave promised) that would entail us leaving the club, stopping paying our membership fees but keeping all the advantages of still being members – just not possible.

Third, as Mrs May discovered to her cost this week, her MPs (like the country as a whole) are bitterly divided.

Yes, leave won but only by a narrow margin which meant that any agreement had to take into account, not just the 52 per cent who voted to leave but the 48 per cent who voted to remain, which is why the deal she brought back from Brussels satisfied no one.

And then there is Ireland.

How many times during the EU campaign did you hear campaigners, on either side, ask what happens to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic (our only land border with the EU) when we leave? I followed the campaign closely and I can honestly say – never.

Yet it is a huge problem and it’s not going to go away, anytime soon.

Ever since the Good Friday agreement the border has existed in name only, ensuring that British soldiers and police patrolling that border were no longer targets for IRA snipers or bombers.

So why would it need to be reinstated when we leave the EU?

Here’s why. Take the example of American chickens washed in chlorine, standard practice in the US but banned in the EU.

Without any border checks a canny trader could simply import chickens from America into Northern Ireland and then just drive them across the border into Ireland and hence into the EU as a whole.

And that’s where we come to the dreaded backstop – something much talked about, but little understood.

What it means is that, if by the time the transition period ends in 2020, we have not negotiated a free trade deal with the EU, and most experts say that’s a near-impossible deadline, then Northern Ireland would have to stay within the Single Market and could not leave without the agreement of the EU.

This is because Brussels has given an assurance to the Dublin Government that it would not permit the reinstatement of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

This might not have been a major problem were not Mrs May dependent on the votes of the hard-line DUP who say they will not permit Northern Ireland to be treated differently to the rest of the UK (except they don’t seem to have noticed that in a whole number of ways Northern Ireland is currently treated differently from the rest of the UK).

So, as we saw in Parliament this week, we have a deadlock which if it isn’t resolved could lead us tumbling out of the EU with no safety net – a scenario which only the most fanatical of Brexiteers in Parliament support and which, even they agree, will leave the country worse off for decades.

So is “no deal” inevitable if Mrs May can’t cobble together a majority for her deal?

Not necessarily.

She could simply stop the clock and ask the EU to extend our March 2019 deadline; or she could, as the European Court has ruled, say now we know the terms of our exit we’ve decided that Brexit was a terrible idea after all and we’re going to resume our full EU membership, or we could hold a second referendum.

None are ideal but the alternative of leaving with no deal is far worse.

So surely its time that our MPs bit the bullet, put country before party, and accept that the solution now lies outside Westminster, in the hands of the people.

Ivor Gaber is Professor of Political Journalism at the University of Sussex and is a former Westminster Political Correspondent.