The Prime Minister discussed the border row that has proved a major stumbling block in the quest for a withdrawal agreement with Leo Varadkar over dinner. Their meeting was understood to be focused on seeking to improve Anglo-Irish relations that have been soured in the dispute about the so-called “backstop” proposals for guaranteeing no physical customs checks on the border with Northern Ireland. The private dinner was held at Ireland’s official state guesthouse Farmleigh House.
Mrs May was accompanied by UK’s Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins and her chief of staff Gavin Barwell.
Ahead of the meeting, Mr Varadkar promised to “share perspectives” on Brexit but pointed out that actual negotiations “can only be between the European Union and the United Kingdom”.
Speaking during a visit to Belfast for talks with Northern Irish parties, the premier said: “I think everybody wants to avoid no-deal, everybody wants to avoid a hard border and everybody wants to continue to have a very close political and economic relationship between Britain and Ireland no matter want happens.
“There is much more that unites us than divides us and time is running short, and we need to get to an agreement really as soon as possible, and I’ll be working very hard and redoubling my efforts, along with government, to do that.”
He added: “I believe ultimately we are going to have to get this deal over the line and I am determined to do that.”
A Downing Street spokesman said Mrs May would be “emphasising what we are looking for, seeking the legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that Parliament said it needs to approve the deal”.
Earlier, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox held talks in Dublin with his Irish counterpart, Seamus Woulfe.
Mr Cox has been leading work within Whitehall on providing either a time limit on the backstop or giving the UK an exit mechanism from it.
Both proposals have received a dusty response from Dublin, which insists the backstop cannot be time-limited if it is to provide an effective “insurance policy” against the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Mrs May, however, has warned she needs legally binding assurances the UK will not be tied to EU rules indefinitely through the backstop if she is to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will hold talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday.
Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker have agreed to meet again before the end of the month to take stock of the situation.
Mr Barnier said he was “looking forward” to the meeting in Brussels but restated the EU’s position that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened.
“I will listen to how the UK sees the way through,” the EU negotiator said.
“The EU will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. But I will reaffirm our openness to rework the Political Declaration in full respect of European Council guidelines.”
Downing Street has said ministers are looking “with interest” at a letter from Jeremy Corbyn setting out the terms on which Labour would support a deal in Parliament.
The move provoked a furious outcry from Labour Remainers – who fear the plan effectively kills off their hopes of the party backing a second referendum – with warnings from some MPs they could quit the party altogether.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Mrs May had to accept his party’s proposals were the only way of getting a Brexit deal through Parliament.
“We believe a deal like this, put before Parliament again, could secure a majority and what you’re seeing here is, yes, Parliament asserting control, and the Prime Minister has to accept that the only way she’ll get something through Parliament is a compromise like this,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Mr McDonnell said the Prime Minister would have a “secure” parliamentary majority if she backed the plans, which he described as a “traditional British compromise”, but said a second referendum was still on the table if an agreement could not be reached.
Number 10 sources acknowledged there were still “very considerable points of difference” with Labour over the blueprint – which includes a customs union with the EU, something the Prime Minister has repeatedly ruled out.
They may hope the threat Parliament could swing behind a “softer” Norway-style Brexit if there is no agreement on Mrs May’s deal will convince some Tory Brexiteer rebels to fall into line behind her plan.