The UK will not suspend the Northern Ireland Brexit agreement before Christmas, a Cabinet minister has said.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the international trade secretary, said the government would "absolutely not" trigger Article 16 before the end of the year.
The comments appear to signal a softening of the UK's strategy in Brexit talks over Northern Ireland.
Boris Johnson's government has been threatening to trigger Article 16 and effectively suspend the agreement if the EU does not make changes to it.
Brexit minister Lord Frost had previously said things would be settled by Christmas one way or another – effectively setting a deadline.
But Ms Trevelyan told the Telegraph newspaper: "I don't think anyone's calling Article 16 before Christmas, absolutely not."
Lord Frost, who has been shuttling back and forth to Brussels for talks with Brussels over the agreement, said last week that Article 16 was still on the table and had been since July.
Asked about Ms Trevelyan's comments Boris Johnson's spokesperson told a briefing of journalists in Westminster:
"Our preference remains to agree a negotiated solution if we can. Of course we will use Article 16, the safety mechanism, if solutions cannot be found.”
Asked directly whether the Government was willing to trigger Article 16 before Christmas, the spokesman replied: "I am not going to put a timetable on it.
"We continue to believe that the conditions for triggering that safety mechanism of Article 16 have been met.
"That remains the Government position. But we will look for a consensual, negotiated solution."
The Cabinet minister's comments could be interpreted in Brussels as the UK backing down from the brink.
Rhetoric emanating from the UK side has somewhat softened in recent weeks, with Boris Johnson's authority weakened by the ongoing second jobs sleaze scandal.
The UK wants the EU to change the agreement to remove barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was drawn up by Lord Frost and the EU two years ago to solve the problem of what would happen to the Irish border after Brexit. It came into force just at the beginning of this year.
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