Theresa May called the Irish prime minister on Monday in order to calm anger in Dublin over comments made by her Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab.
Mr Raab reportedly tried to backslide on a commitment the UK had made to prevent a hard border with the Republic, suggesting the “backstop” policy should expire after just three months.
The taoiseach’s office said the prime minister had “sought” the call after the comments, said to have been made in a private meeting with officials, emerged.
Leo Varadkar told Ms May he was open to a “review” mechanism for the backstop, which is controversial with Eurosceptics, but that this could not amount to “a unilateral decision to end” it by the UK. Ms May told her counterpart she was still committed to a full backstop, despite Mr Raab’s comments.
Speaking earlier in Dublin Mr Varadkar had said a time-limited backstop as suggested by Mr Raab would not be worth the paper it was written on.
“As a government we’re working very hard to get an agreement, ideally by the end of the year, but you know one thing we can’t countenance is any idea that there’d be a three-month limit on the backstop,” he told the Irish media.
“You know a backstop with a three-month limit on it or an expiry date of that nature isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, and what the UK government has signed up to is a legally operative backstop that will apply unless and until we have a new agreement to supersede it – and I think it’s reasonable for us to expect a country like the United Kingdom and a government like the UK government to stand by its commitments.”
Many Tory Eurosceptics are adamant that any backstop must be limited in time, to avoid the UK being signed permanently to a customs union with the EU after it leaves. The EU has said a time-limited backstop would not be a backstop because it would not prevent a hard border in all circumstances.
Giving an account of the two leaders’ conversation, a spokesperson for the taoiseach said: “Both leaders emphasised their commitment to avoiding a hard border and the need for a legally operable backstop.
“The prime minister raised the possibility of a review mechanism for the backstop. The taoiseach indicated an openness to consider proposals for a review, provided that it was clear that the outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop.
“He recalled the prior commitments made that the backstop must apply ‘unless and until’ alternative arrangements are agreed.”
A Downing Street spokesperson also gave an account of the call, providing less detail. They said: “The prime minister spoke to the taoiseach this morning to take stock of the progress being made in the negotiations, including on the Northern Ireland backstop. In a constructive conversation, the prime minister and the taoiseach discussed the remaining issues.
“They agreed that the intention was that the backstop should only be a temporary arrangement and that the best solution to the Northern Ireland border would be found by agreeing a future relationship between the UK and the EU. In order to ensure that the backstop, if ever needed, would be temporary, the prime minister said that there would need to be a mechanism through which the backstop could be brought to an end.
“She affirmed the UK’s commitment to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The prime minister and the taoiseach agreed that discussions should continue.”
Mr Raab does not intend to resign over the backstop duration row, sources were later reported as having said.
Ms May must now face her cabinet to gain the backing of her top ministers, and update them on her talks with her Irish counterpart. The meeting on Tuesday comes after justice secretary David Gauke said a no-deal EU exit would be “very bad” for the UK economy.
Mr Varadkar warned that the United Kingdom was “in many ways is a divided kingdom”, noting that “the cabinet seems divided, the government seems divided, parliament is divided and that has made it very difficult to come to an agreement”.
He added that he would prefer to negotiate with a country that was not divided, but that “we don’t, so we have to work through”.
Late on Monday, a report in The Times suggested the EU was planning to offer Ms May a compromise on the vexed Irish border question. The UK would be allowed an “independent mechanism” it could use to end a temporary customs agreement with the remaining 27 EU countries, the paper said.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.