It was the diplomatic chat-up line from Boris Johnson which signalled that a deal was finally imminent.
‘You look fresh,’ the Prime Minister told Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, ‘for someone who has been counting fish all night.’
The comment came on Christmas Eve morning after Mr Johnson had just completed a run with his dog, Dilyn, and marked the end of 11 months of tortuous negotiations over mackerel quotas and car tariffs.
The talks finally concluded with the £660 billion trade agreement which has lifted the Covid-induced gloom in Downing Street.
It was the diplomatic chat-up line from Boris Johnson (pictured) which signalled that a deal was finally imminent
Mr Johnson has told allies that he credits the ‘hardball’ strategy of UK chief negotiator David Frost and his deputy Oliver Lewis for the successful outcome, and in particular the controversial decision in October to break international law by legislating to override the Brexit divorce agreement’s restrictions on Northern Ireland.
The move was condemned by five former Prime Ministers – but is seen in No 10 as the moment when the EU’s granite-faced approach started to crack.
Shortly afterwards, Mrs von der Leyen moved to sideline the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and took over effective control of the talks.
As they worked through long days and nights in dreary Covid-compliant conference rooms in Brussels and London, Lord Frost’s team sought inspiration from 19th Century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who once said of his diplomatic strategy of that combined charm and menace: ‘With a gentleman I am always a gentleman and a half, and when I have to deal with a pirate, I try to be a pirate and a half.’
‘You look fresh,’ the Prime Minister told Ursula von der Leyen (pictured), the president of the European Commission, ‘for someone who has been counting fish all night’
The UK’s ‘pirate’ moment came when No 10 introduced the Internal Market Bill to deal with the Northern Ireland issue, which was described by Tony Blair and Sir John Major as ‘irresponsible, wrong in principle and dangerous in practice’.
Theresa May, David Cameron and Gordon Brown soon added their voices to the criticism.
But Frost and Lewis had calculated that because the Brexit divorce deal imposed new bureaucracy for trade across the Irish Sea – by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods – Brussels would be able to blackmail London into accepting a deal on its terms by deploying the threat of tariffs on goods coming from the mainland.
Within weeks of the Government introducing the Bill, the EU had caved: Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove secured agreement with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic that, in the event of No Deal, 98 per cent of goods crossing the Irish Sea would be tariff-free. Now that a deal has been struck, it is 100 per cent.
A source on the British negotiating team said: ‘The EU were threatening to sever Northern Ireland from the mainland.
‘Michael’s deal removed their leverage, and ensured that we achieved much better terms in the final deal on issues such as fish and EU rules.’
When the Cabinet met last week to discuss the deal, Mr Gove echoed the Prime Minister in saying that the Internal Market Bill was a tactic which had ‘unlocked the result’.
Downing Street officials are full of praise for the ‘calm, composed and professional’ Mrs von der Leyen – or ‘VDL’, as the negotiators referred to her – for breaking the impasse caused by the stubbornness of Mr Barnier and the naked self-interest of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.
The source added: ‘October was when we broke down the intransigence. VDL had already wounded Barnier by vetoing his insistence that the European Court of Justice should remain the ultimate authority over the UK, but when we landed the Internal Market Bill on them, she killed him completely.’
It was a complicated courtship.
No 10 had hoped that Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen’s dinner of scallops, turbot and pavlova in Brussels on December 9 would provide the breakthrough, as Britain proposed a deal based on accepting certain tariffs in return for freedom from EU rules.
But behind the scenes, French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel resisted the idea, fearing the UK would appear as a dynamic and attractive ‘Singapore-style’ market on its doorstep.
That fear was behind the determination to make the UK ‘crawl on broken glass’ – as one negotiator phrased it to The Mail on Sunday – before getting a deal, and explains why the ‘tariffs for freedom’ plan received a cool response.
After they removed their masks to pose for the official photographs before that ill-fated meal, Mrs von der Leyen told Mr Johnson to ‘keep your distance’, prompting the Prime Minister to mutter in response: ‘You run a tight ship here, Ursula. And quite right too.’
The chemistry between Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen was placed under even greater strain on Monday, when the EU deployed its ‘hammer’ – the threat of billions of pounds of tariffs if the UK reneged on any of the agreement on fishing rights.
Mr Johnson told her that he would never accept such a punishment clause, saying: ‘I cannot sign, and I will not sign.’
He added in her native German: ‘Viel hummer, kein hammer’ – ‘lots of lobster, no hammer’.
But when Mrs von der Leyen sent her highly regarded consigliere, Stephanie Riso, deputy head of Cabinet, to attend last week’s talks, it was seen as a sign that a deal was back on the table.
During the final hours of the negotiations, it came down to a straight haggle between Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen over the length of the agreement on fish.
Mr Barnier’s original demand for a 14-year deal was whittled down to the point where Mr Johnson was asking for five years and Mrs von der Leyen for six years.
It is why a compromise was reached at five and a half, during which EU boats will have to hand over a quarter of the catch landed in our waters.
Mr Johnson’s ‘fresh’ flirtation with Mrs von der Leyen came after a long night of splicing and dicing quotas for cod, herring, mackerel and tuna, combined with reassurances for EU fishermen over a mechanism to stop the UK backtracking on its promises.
After gruelling shifts in which some negotiators said they had to resort to ‘washing their underwear in the hotel room sink’, by Wednesday evening a deal looked sufficiently certain for Thursday’s papers to be briefed on the details.
However, it was to be delayed again because of a last-minute hitch over a three per cent discrepancy in estimates of UK fish stocks.
When a relieved Mr Johnson announced the deal at a press conference in the afternoon, the world was treated to flashes of the old, buoyant Boris as he wisecracked his way through the questions.
After months of unrelenting misery from Covid, the Prime Minister looked to be back in his political comfort zone.