Boris Johnson will make a dash to Luxembourg for talks with Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday as efforts to get a Brexit deal intensify.
The PM will hold a crisis meeting with the EU commission president at a ‘neutral location’ as the clock ticks down on his ‘do or die’ date for leaving the bloc.
He will also meet Luxembourg premier Xavier Bettel during the trip.
However, the scale of the challenge Mr Johnson faces was underlined today when Irish PM Leo Varadkar warned that the ‘gap is very wide’ between the two sides.
Rumours are swirling that Mr Johnson is pinning his hopes on a new version of the ‘insurance policy’ for the Irish border.
There are claims that the DUP is ready to soften its red lines on the backstop, although that was rejected by the party today.
Mr Varadkar also moved to play down the scope for compromise this morning.
‘We have always said we would be willing to look at alternative arrangements but what we’re seeing falls far short,’ Mr Varadkar told RTE radio.
‘We are exploring what is possible. The gap is very wide but we will fight for and work for a deal until the last moment, but not at any cost.’
It will be the first meeting between Mr Johnson and Mr Juncker since he entered Downing Street. But sources played down hopes of a ‘breakthrough moment’.
‘The PM is working hard to get a deal and we have been putting forward ideas but there is a long way to go,’ one senior aide said.
Rumours have been swirling that Boris Johnson (pictured in Doncaster today) is preparing a new version of the ‘insurance policy’ for the Irish border
Mr Johnson inspected some crustaceans today as he toured the market in Doncaster today
Irish PM Leo Varadkar (pictured meeting with members of Fine Gael in Cork yesterday) warned that the ‘gap is very wide’ between the two sides
Jean-Claude Juncker, pictured in Brussels this week, has claimed that Britons were only ever ‘part-time Europeans’
Mr Juncker risked fury yesterday as he claimed British people were only ever ‘part time Europeans’.
The outgoing president of the European Commission said ‘from the very beginning’ the UK had not been fully committed to the EU.
He labelled Brexit a ‘tragedy and a failure’ but insisted he was in no way responsible for the current chaos surrounding the UK’s split from Brussels.
The comments from Mr Juncker came as he prepares to step down from his role in a matter of weeks.
He will be replaced as the head of the commission by Ursula von der Leyen on November 1 as his five year term comes to an end.
The PM’s aides have been examining proposals for arrangements that would apply only to Northern Ireland, rather than aligning the whole UK with EU market rules.
However, DUP leader Arlene Foster has moved to quash the speculation, saying the ‘UK must leave as one nation’.
What happens next in the Brexit crisis?
Here is how the coming weeks could pan out:
September 14-17: Lib Dem conference takes place in Bournemouth
September 17: Supreme Court hears case on whether prorogation of Parliament was illegal.
September 21-25: Labour conference in Brighton
September 29-October 2: Tory conference takes place in Manchester, with Mr Johnson giving his first keynote speech as leader on the final day. This will be a crucial waypointer on how Brexit talks are going.
October 14: Unless it has already been recalled following the court battle, Parliament is due to return with the Queen’s Speech – the day before Mr Johnson had hoped to hold a snap election.
October 17-18: A crunch EU summit in Brussels, where Mr Johnson has vowed he will try to get a Brexit deal despite Remainers ‘wrecking’ his negotiating position.
October 19: If there is no Brexit deal by this date Remainer legislation obliges the PM to beg the EU for an extension to avoid No Deal.
October 21: Decisive votes on the Queen’s Speech, which could pave the way for a confidence vote.
October 31: The current deadline for the UK to leave the EU.
November/December: An election looks inevitable, but Labour is hinting it might push the date back towards Christmas to humiliate the PM.
‘We are keen to see a sensible deal but not one that divides the internal market of the UK,’ she said.
In a sign that pressure might be starting to tell on Ireland, Mr Varadkar admitted today that there would need to be border checks after No Deal.
‘Our intention in the event of No Deal – and this is is a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question – is that checks will take place at ports and airports and at business level.
‘Some checks may need to be placed on the border but we do not have any locations identified.
‘We will do everything we can do to avoid checks on or near the border but the position we face is a decision by the UK to leave the EU potentially without a deal, and in that scenario we have a twin objective.
‘The first is to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and the second is to protect our position in the European single market so that is going to be very difficult.
‘What I can say to anyone who operates a business along the border who may face SPS (Sanitary and Phytosanitary) checks or other is that we will give them plenty of notice. It is not going to be a sudden announcement or an overnight decision.’
The latest manoeuvring came as the PM takes his ‘shadow’ election campaign on the road to Yorkshire – where he will vow to fire up the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ economic project.
But most of the focus is on his increasingly frantic efforts to find a way through the Brexit impasse, as he faces breaking his ‘do or die’ promise to get the UK out of the EU by October 31.
Mr Johnson previously stated that he was seeking a ‘backstop-ectomy’, to remove the controversial provision from the Withdrawal Agreement altogether.
However, the task for the PM was made tougher after Parliament passed a law effectively banning No Deal at the end of October, and refused his call to trigger an early general election.
The latest blueprint being floated would not be the same as the previous Northern Ireland-only backstop floated by Brussels, which was dismissed by Theresa May as something no British PM could accept.
That would have involved the province staying within the EU’s tax jurisdiction.
Instead, the idea is thought to be a much looser alignment of agricultural and food regulations with Ireland.
Mr Johnson insisted he is ‘very hopeful’ of a Brexit deal yesterday, saying the ‘landing space’ for an agreement was becoming clear.
DUP leader Arlene Foster (pictured at No10 with deputy Nigel Dodds earlier this week) has moved to quash speculation over a watered-down version of the backstop, saying the ‘UK must leave as one nation’
However, the EU’s chief negotiator swiped that he is still waiting for ‘concrete, legally operational’ ideas from the UK.
And one of his advisers warned there was ‘no reason for optimism’.
Downing Street sources played down the tough line from the EU side, branding it a ‘negotiating tactic’.
As well as Mrs Foster, DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson today gave a sharp response to claims the party is about to make a cilmbdown.
‘We will not accept a NI only backstop… It won’t be a backstop by any other name either,’ he told BBC Radio Ulster.
‘We will not be accepting separate arrangements that cut us off from UK.
‘The only different arrangements that we will accept for Northern Ireland are those where the Assembly has total scrutiny of any EU legislation, decides it’s in the interests of Northern Ireland, and doesn’t damage our relationship with the UK.
‘In those situations we will consider adopting appropriate legislation if we believe it is to the advantage of industry in Northern Ireland.’
EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier (pictured in Brussels yesterday) delivered a thinly-veiled rebuke to Mr Johnson, saying he had yet to see ‘concrete proposals’