Direct rule will be imposed in Northern Ireland within the next three months to see through Brexit, ministers believe.
Senior Conservatives believe that only a delay to the exit date from the European Union or the restoration of the Stormont assembly would prevent the British government from taking control of the province.
It has been reported that senior civil servants in Belfast fear that they are being asked to make decisions that were once made by members of the Northern Irish assembly. Sources said that such judgments, over security and the economy in particular, would become more complex and increasingly political once Britain left the EU.
Stormont’s present deadlock began in January 2017, when the partnership between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein fell apart.
A cabinet source said: “If Stormont is not back then who will make the decisions on processes? Not the civil service. It will have to be direct rule or Brexit will have to be put back again.
“It can’t be delivered without something in place. This needs to be done by October and is an incentive for the DUP in particular to get on with talks.”
Another senior government figure confirmed that direct rule would need to be implemented or Stormont restored before October to ensure that Westminster was ready for Brexit.
Theresa May, Michael Gove and Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, have all warned that a no-deal Brexit would lead to the return of direct rule. However, the prospect of Westminster taking control under any circumstance has so far remained off the table.
Northern Ireland was ruled directly from London between 1972 and 1999, when the assembly began. Direct rule has been introduced again in periods when power-sharing broke down, including between 2002 and 2007.
Many direct powers have returned to Westminster since the current suspension of the assembly began, including giving Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, the power to appoint an attorney-general. Last week MPs voted to legalise gay marriage and widen abortion rights. The decision means that the government at Westminster will have to change Northern Ireland law if the assembly has not sat by October 21.