Hopes are rising that embattled British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will try to reach a deal with the EU rather than be forced into delaying Brexit.
Mr Johnson toned down his ‘do-or-die’ rhetoric on a visit to Ireland, saying it would be a failure on all sides if a compromise cannot be achieved before October 31.
His private meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar failed to provide any breakthrough. However, at a time when Anglo-Irish relations are in a difficult state, Government sources said there is now the basis for positive engagement.
It’s understood the two leaders agreed to increase contacts in the coming weeks and are keen to meet again.
While Mr Johnson was making his way back to London, Queen Elizabeth gave assent to legislation designed to stop him forcing through no deal.
The House of Commons was then suspended by the government until October 14 – three days before a crucial EU summit where the future direction of Brexit will be decided.
The joint statement from Mr Varadkar and Mr Johnson wasn’t part of the original plan for yesterday’s carefully choreographed visit.
However, following the meeting both sides said “common ground was established in some areas although significant gaps remain”.
On the steps of Government Buildings, Mr Johnson said he would “overwhelmingly prefer” to do a deal.
While this has raised hopes here of progress, it incensed hard-line Brexiteers including Nigel Farage, who said: “The Boris bravado has disappeared in Dublin.”
The Brexit Party leader said Mr Johnson is now going “all out for Mrs May’s deal, with Northern Ireland to be hived off from the rest of the UK”.
There is growing speculation that Mr Johnson is moving towards a version of the backstop that was originally tabled by his predecessor.
Theresa May was on the verge of agreeing that Northern Ireland could maintain regulatory alignment with the EU, but the idea was torpedoed by the DUP.
The Irish Government would willingly return to the 2017 position, with sources suggesting the legal elements could easily be drawn up before Halloween.
The Conservative Party has now lost its working majority, meaning the support of the DUP is less relevant.
But party leader Arlene Foster insisted yesterday that a system which treated the North differently from the rest of the UK would be “anti-democratic and unconstitutional”.
She said Mr Johnson had “already ruled out a Northern Ireland-only backstop”.
During his meeting with Mr Varadkar, the prime minister raised the prospect of an all-island zone for animal and plant safety. This would remove the need for checks on livestock crossing the Border, but according to the EU would only address around 30pc of the gap between the two sides.
Checks near the Border would still be required to ensure the enforcement of EU laws relating to customs, Vat and other production standards.
Mr Johnson said he understood the “conundrum” Brexit has caused for Ireland, and the “fantastic political importance and sensitivities of the Border”.
He said he had been to the Border “several times” before the Good Friday Agreement, but refused to reveal when he was last there.
The prime minister did say his government had given a “unilateral declaration that, under no circumstances, there won’t be any checks at that Border imposed by the UK – that will never happen – we must ensure there is an open Border and that goods and people can circulate in the normal way”.
In an attempt to outline how a no-deal Brexit will only result in a need for further talks between the UK and EU after huge economic damage has been inflicted, Mr Varadkar said “the story of Brexit will not end if the United Kingdom leaves on October 31 or even January 31”.
“There is no such thing as a clean break. No such thing as ‘just getting it done’. Rather, we just enter a new phase,” he said. Mr Varadkar added that even after a no-deal Brexit “the only items on the agenda will be citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish Border”.
“In the absence of agreed alternative arrangements, no backstop is no deal for us.
“We are open to alternatives, but they must be realistic ones, legally binding and workable and we haven’t received such proposals to date,” the Taoiseach said.
“What we cannot do and will not do, and I know you understand this, is agree to the replacement of a legal guarantee with a promise.”
Legally, Mr Johnson now has to do a deal in the coming weeks or seek an extension until January 31.
When asked whether the EU would even grant another delay, Mr Varadkar cautioned that “the vast majority of countries around the table would prefer there not be an extension”.
Sources in Dublin said last night that they are waiting to see what Mr Johnson does next. “The ball is in their court and the EU is waiting,” a source said.