Ministers are giving themselves until 5 March to decide whether to call fresh elections in Northern Ireland, as the Democratic Unionist party continues to block power-sharing at Stormont in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.
This allows the EU and the UK a six-week window to try to thrash out a deal to end the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol.
The Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, is expected to confirm the government approach after meeting Irish political leaders in Dublin on Thursday afternoon.
The deadline for an executive to be formed at Stormont runs out at midnight on Thursday, and the DUP has made it clear it will not return to the assembly until a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol is struck.
It is understood Heaton-Harris will say the clock starts ticking at one minute past midnight on legislation mandating an election in the next 12 weeks.
Given that an election campaign can be as short as six weeks, this gives him until the first week of March to call an election under the law.
This piles the pressure on the EU and the UK to come to agreement on the protocol in the coming weeks. On Monday after a “stock-taking” meeting, the UK and the EU committed to further talks.
Alternatively, Heaton-Harris could return to parliament in the next six weeks and further extend the deadline for an executive to be formed at Stormont.
This would require primary legislation, and it is understood that parties in Westminster would be amenable to such a move if it looks as if protocol talks could deliver a solution that the DUP could support.
Adding to the complications over the elections are events including a possible visit by Joe Biden around the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement on 10 April, and the coronation of King Charles in May.
Northern Ireland’s council elections have been put back to 18 May to avoid a clash with the royal ceremony on 6 May.
If the protocol talks do not result in satisfaction for the DUP, an election would turn into a de facto ballot on the Brexit issue.
The DUP and the Conservatives’ Eurosceptic European Research Group want to see an end to the application of EU law in Northern Ireland, one of the greatest challenges facing the EU and the UK.
Diplomats believe that with compromise a deal can be struck on the two other big issues – checks on goods entering NI from Great Britain, and the role of the European court of justice.
The Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker proposed a fudge on the ECJ last year involving an arbitration panel that would be the first port of call in disputes, a system used elsewhere in the withdrawal agreement.