Boris Johnson is meeting Leo Varadkar for last-ditch Brexit talks in a bid to break the deadlock as the departure deadline looms and progress with the EU falters.
The Prime Minister and his Irish counterpart were holding what is described as a “private meeting” at a luxury wedding venue on the Wirral peninsula to “allow detailed discussions” on the process for securing an agreement.
Mr Johnson will hope to see concessions on the issue of the Irish backstop, the contingency measure to prevent a hard border on the island which has proved a persistent sticking point.
— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) October 10, 2019
But with the crucial EU summit in Brussels starting in a week, the chance of the PM securing a new Withdrawal Agreement is looking increasingly unlikely.
The meeting – intended to take place away from the media spotlight – was being held at Thornton Manor, a grade II listed building that was once the home of the soap magnate William Hesketh Lever, in the village of Thornton Hough.
The Taoiseach acknowledged ahead of the discussion that it will be “very difficult” to secure a deal by next week.
Mr Johnson wants to keep Northern Ireland more closely aligned with the EU than the rest of the UK on rules on goods and agriculture but remove it from the current customs union.
But Mr Varadkar is opposed to the Republic being in a different customs union from the north.
On Wednesday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said there was still no basis for a fresh agreement on the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc.
He said they had yet to see any “operational, legally binding solution” to the issue of the backstop ahead of next week’s European Council meeting.
Mr Johnson’s “two borders” proposals, he said, were based on a system “that hasn’t been properly developed, that hasn’t been tested”.
The downbeat assessment from Mr Barnier was echoed by the Taoiseach, who said the PM was installing an obstacle to progress by insisting that Northern Ireland must leave the customs union with the rest of the UK.
“That’s their position at the moment and that’s one that is a great difficulty for us,” Mr Varadkar told the Irish parliament on Wednesday.
“As far as the Irish government is concerned, we do want a deal, we’re willing to work hard to get a deal, to work until the last moment to get a deal, but certainly not at any cost.”
Mr Johnson must bring back a deal before October 19 if he is to avoid a clash over the Benn Act, which aims to prevent a no-deal departure.
The legislation orders the PM to ask for a delay to Article 50 until the end of January if MPs do not approve a deal before that date.
But he has repeatedly said he will not ask for a delay, while insisting that he will abide by the law.
On Thursday, business minister Kwasi Kwarteng said Mr Johnson and Mr Varadkar remain “seriously focused” on trying to get a deal, and he believes a “good chance” of securing one remains.
But former chancellor Philip Hammond told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the PM’s proposal “is not going to fly, was never going to fly”.
Mr Hammond, who was among the 21 Tory rebels expelled by the PM, also ruled out granting Mr Johnson’s wish by voting for an early general election.
“I don’t think an election solves our problem here,” he added.
Mr Johnson is planning an emergency Saturday sitting of Parliament following the summit, to be held on October 19, according to Government sources.
It is thought the PM could use the occasion to force a showdown with MPs determined to block a no-deal Brexit.