Theresa May is to visit Northern Ireland on Tuesday to give a speech in which she will confirm her Government’s “absolute commitment” to avoiding a hard border with the Republic after Brexit.
The Prime Minister’s trip, which will also take in talks with local businesses, comes as she prepares to return to Brussels to demand the reopening of the EU Withdrawal Agreement.
Meanwhile, Downing Street poured cold water on speculation over an early election, saying that Mrs May was “absolutely not” considering a vote on June 6.
The spokesman also said it was “simply not true” that the Government was drawing up plans for the evacuation of the Queen from Buckingham Palace in the case of civil unrest after a no-deal Brexit.
The comments came as Justice Secretary David Gauke became the latest Cabinet minister to suggest that Brexit might have to be delayed beyond the scheduled date of March 29.
Mr Gauke told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “We need to leave the European Union in a smooth and orderly way, and our objective is to do that on March 29, but I think it is important that it is a smooth and orderly departure and that is key.”
Mrs May’s spokesman insisted: “She is absolutely determined to deliver Brexit on time. That means March 29.”
Rebel Tory MPs have been invited for a series of meetings chaired by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay to explore ideas which could offer Mrs May a way forward after the emphatic Commons rejection of her Withdrawal Agreement.
At the heart of the changes being demanded by Conservative Eurosceptics is the removal of the so-called “backstop”, designed to keep the Irish border open in the absence of a broader trade deal.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU was ready to listen to proposals to solve the border “riddle”, but needs to hear from Britain how it thinks it can be done.
Speaking during a trip to Japan, Ms Merkel said: “To solve this riddle, you have to be creative and you have to listen to one another.
“We can have those conversations, so we can use the remaining time to perhaps remove the obstacles that have so far stood in the way and find an agreement if everyone is willing.
“But we must hear from Great Britain how they want to do it.”
Mrs Merkel’s visit for talks with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe came days after a new EU-Japan trade deal came into force and a day after Nissan confirmed it was ditching plans to build its X-Trail SUV in Sunderland.
The company said the decision was largely driven by changing demand for diesel models but added that “uncertainty around the UK’s future relationship with the EU is not helping companies like ours to plan for the future”.
Hardline Eurosceptics in the European Research Group (ERG) and Remain-supporting former ministers were gathering in the Cabinet Office for the first meeting of the new Alternative Arrangements Working Group (AAWG).
ERG deputy chairman Steve Baker, former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson and Yeovil MP Marcus Fysh will sit around a table with former education secretary Nicky Morgan and ex-Cabinet Office minister Damian Green to examine the feasibility of the so-called Malthouse Compromise.
Downing Street confirmed that they will meet with Mr Barclay on each of the first three days of this week and did not rule out further meetings beyond that date.
The PM’s spokesman said the group would be moving “urgently” to draw up proposals “as soon as possible”. Downing Street has previously suggested that these might revolve around a time-limit or unilateral brake on the backstop or technological solutions to keep traffic flowing over the border.
Mrs May last week told the Commons that the Malthouse Compromise - named for housing minister Kit Malthouse, who co-ordinated meetings bringing together the Remain and Leave wings of the party - was “a serious proposal that we are engaging with sincerely and positively”.
But the chairman of the Commons Brexit Committee, Hilary Benn, said: “Personally, I don’t see how it can work - particularly in the very short amount of time that there is left.”
Speaking as the committee visited Brussels for private talks with EU officials, Mr Benn said the UK Government and EU had already put a great deal of effort into exploring a technological solution, only to conclude that: “It’s not going to work.”
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer moved to clarify Labour’s position on the backstop, after Jeremy Corbyn suggested last week he would have “a problem” with a “one-sided” arrangement.
Speaking in Northern Ireland, Sir Keir told the Press Association: “We recognise there is a need for a backstop at this stage of the exercise.
“The Prime Minister has effectively run down the clock and therefore it is impossible to see a way forward without a backstop. So, whilst we have got concerns that we have set out about the backstop, we do accept the principle that there has got to be a backstop.”
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson accused the Tory leadership of using rumours of an early election as a “scare tactic” to bounce exhausted Conservative MPs into backing her Withdrawal Agreement.
In his Daily Telegraph column, Mr Johnson said the Conservatives would go into an early election with “a hole in the heart of our manifesto” because they do not have a settled EU policy.