Boris Johnson has vowed to double down on attempts to secure a new Brexit deal in the coming weeks, with Downing Street insisting the “priority” was to avoid leaving the bloc without a deal.
The prime minister is seeking a fresh solution to the Irish border issue, which derailed three attempts by his predecessor Theresa May earlier this year to push a deal through parliament.
Mr Johnson met Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, on Monday and will hold talks with Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, and her deputy Nigel Dodds, on Tuesday afternoon in Number 10.
A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Johnson would be talking to other European leaders in the coming weeks to try to find a deal that other parties could support.
“We are now seeing progress beginning to take place but there is still a long way to go,” he said. “It is going to take a lot of hard work to be able to conclude or reach a deal at that summit in mid-October.”
The UK government has insisted that the Irish backstop, designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, must be abolished. Instead officials have been floating the idea of an arrangement based on checks on agrifoods alone, along with different measures such as trusted trader schemes and new technology, but Dublin and Brussels have voiced scepticism about the plan.
The spokesman also denied speculation that the UK could be seeking to return to the EU’s proposal for a Northern Ireland-only backstop, which is opposed by the DUP.
But the DUP’s influence over the Conservative party may have waned in recent days, because its power came from giving the Tories an effective majority in the House of Commons — which it has now lost.
“The Tory party is no longer dependent on the DUP for its majority, it doesn’t have a majority,” said Nick Boles, a former Conservative minister who now sits as an independent MP.
Mr Boles was speaking at the launch of a new cross-party group of MPs seeking consensus across parliament for a new Brexit deal, arguing that there is still time for Mr Johnson to strike a fresh agreement with Brussels.
MPs including Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat, former Tories Rory Stewart and Mr Boles, and Labour’s Caroline Flint and Stephen Kinnock launched their new group — “MPs For A Deal” — at an event in Portcullis House in Westminster on Tuesday.
They insisted that there was a potential parliamentary majority for approving a deal in late October, with “up to” 50 Labour MPs — mostly in Leave constituencies — now prepared to support the government in order to get Britain out of the EU.
Mr Kinnock said he believed there was a Commons “majority for moderation” who could be persuaded to back a sensible deal, as long as it was not a “carbon copy” of the May withdrawal agreement.
“This is not a unicorn,” he said. “We have something here which is the basic foundation of a perfectly pragmatic deal that we believe can command a majority in parliament and also begin to reunite our deeply-divided country, and even at this eleventh hour we think there is time to do it.”
Dozens of Labour MPs considered backing Mrs May’s deal earlier in the year only to change their minds at the last minute for fear of breaking the party whip. At the third vote in late March only five Labour MPs supported the government.
The Labour leadership is likely to take a dim view of MPs who back a fresh Tory deal with Brussels, given that Mr Johnson would be likely to call a snap election to capitalise on Leave voters’ delight at Britain finally leaving the EU on October 31.
Gloria De Piero, a Labour member of MPs For A Deal, refused to put numbers on its membership but said there had been a wave of interest from other MPs. “Watch this space,” she said.
Kevin Barron, a Labour MP who backed the government in March, said: “The sooner party leaders do what’s best for the nation, the better.”