In the manicured grounds of the Thornton Manor hotel, a Victorian pile on the Wirral peninsula, Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar concluded talks on Thursday that may turn out to be a turning point in the Brexit saga.
Mr Varadkar admitted this could be another false dawn — he told reporters “there are many a slip between cup and lip” — but in Downing Street and in Brussels a crackle of excitement could be felt that something “big” was about to happen.
The upholstered drawing rooms and shrubberies of the Grade II-listed former home of William Hesketh Lever, the soap magnate, provided the backdrop for the dialogue, which was deemed by the Irish taoiseach to be “very positive, very promising”.
After talking for almost two hours head-to-head — and with no aides or notetakers present — the two leaders headed out into the ornamental gardens to seal a proposal that would break the Brexit deadlock. On Friday, the talks move to Brussels.
Before they arrived on the Wirral — a supposedly neutral venue near Liverpool and halfway between London and Dublin — Mr Varadkar and Mr Johnson’s positions were far apart. The Irish premier called it a “chasm”.
Their positions seemed irreconcilable. Mr Johnson said Northern Ireland must remain part of the UK’s customs area after Brexit; Mr Varadkar said the region must stay part of the EU customs union to avoid a hard border on the island.
Mr Johnson was warned by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, this week that he would have to shift his red line before the EU could begin detailed talks on a deal to deliver Brexit by October 31.
It confronted the British prime minister with a massive dilemma. Mr Johnson needs to deliver Brexit before he faces the electorate, knowing that he would be punished if he reneged on his “do or die” promise to take Britain out of the EU on Halloween.
But a Brexit that left Northern Ireland in the EU customs union — even for a time-limited period — would be both a betrayal of his repeated promise that the UK would leave “whole and entire” and politically explosive.
Doing so would also be seen as abandoning the Democratic Unionist party, which has propped up the Conservative government. It would infuriate hardline Eurosceptics in his own party.
But some in his cabinet, including prominent Brexiters, believe the DUP should be faced down. They think that a time-limited version of the backstop — which kept Northern Ireland in the customs union — is a price worth paying.
Business leaders, farmers and the Northern Ireland population generally — according to opinion polls — would back a solution in which the region effectively become a “special economic zone”, uniquely located in both the EU and UK customs areas.
Mr Varadkar explained that if Mr Johnson could accept that principle then the EU would look at “consent” mechanisms so the people of Northern Ireland could choose to leave the EU customs union at a later date.
Some of Mr Johnson’s cabinet colleagues say that, in practice, Northern Ireland would never choose to remove itself from an economic arrangement that was so plainly beneficial. “They’d be the Singapore of Europe,” said one minister.
If Mr Johnson does decide to abandon his DUP allies, it would be a huge political gamble. It might help him to secure a deal at next week’s European Council meeting, but could he then get it though the House of Commons?
If he lost the backing of the DUP and hardline Tory Eurosceptics, Mr Johnson would need the support of Labour MPs from Leave areas to be sure of securing the backing for a withdrawal treaty in the Commons.
Three hours after the meeting in north-west England ended, DUP officials said they were still waiting to hear the details of what Mr Johnson had offered his Irish counterpart. The nervousness was clear.
“Be careful of Irish spin,” said one.
On the possibility of Northern Ireland staying in the EU customs union, even temporarily, Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, said: “We won’t be agreeing to that if that is what is being discussed.”
The word “surrender” is a staple of the DUP lexicon and Mr Johnson — who has accused his own political opponents of being willing to haul up the white flag in Brussels — will face serious criticism if he is seen to have conceded too much.
Whether the Wirral talks turn out to be pivotal will become clearer on Friday when Brexit secretary Steve Barclay meets Michel Barnier, chief EU Brexit negotiator, for breakfast in Brussels to discuss the new proposals.
Hardened British diplomats remain cautious about a breakthrough but, given the gloomy predictions going into the discussions, the mood permeating both delegations as they left the Thornton Manor hotel offered some grounds for optimism.
Additional reporting by Laura Hughes and Sebastian Payne
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