BRUSSELS/DUBLIN/LONDON(Reuters) - In 90 days as British prime minister, Boris Johnson has been humiliated in parliament, drawn mass street protests, tasted heavy defeat in the courts and suffered significant departures from his government, including his own brother.
At home, he and his Brexit strategy remain under siege this week as his 11th-hour divorce agreement with the European Union hangs in the balance in a parliament outside his control.
There is one place, however, where he has earned grudging respect over the past few weeks: Brussels. On the other side of the Channel, EU negotiators who once dismissed him as “a clown” now take him seriously and believe he may yet pull it off.
“He’s closer than they have ever been,” an EU diplomat said after a weekend of high drama in the British parliament, where Johnson on Monday was pushing for a vote on his deal after an unexpected delay on Saturday.
“If there is anyone who can do it in the House of Commons, it’s him. If not, we will be back to square one in a few days or weeks,” the diplomat said.
Johnson’s ability to overcome deep European scepticism and salvage the stranded negotiating process was forged during an off-the-record countryside stroll with Ireland’s leader, Leo Varadkar, on Thursday, Oct. 10.
Johnson’s turnaround, insiders on both sides of the talks said, came after the process was on the verge of collapse on Tuesday, Oct. 8.
Just a week earlier, the European side had rejected outright Johnson’s latest proposal to resolve the persistent sticking point of how to deal with the border between Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and Ireland, which remains part of the EU, after Brexit without upsetting a decades-old peace deal.
Johnson’s suggestions were vague and lacked legal foundation, the EU side had said.
The crisis over the so-called Irish backstop, intended to prevent a hard border on the island, seemed insurmountable three weeks before Britain was set to crash out without an agreement.
The low point came during an acrimonious phone call earlier on Oct. 8, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel bluntly told Johnson that the EU would not accept customs checks on the island of Ireland.
Details of the confidential call quickly leaked from a source at 10 Downing Street, upsetting the Germans. Fuming at Merkel’s suggestion, Johnson’s aides unleashed their fury, breaking every diplomatic code in the book and texting reporters: “They aren’t engaging or negotiating seriously.” Another Downing Street source said a deal was “essentially impossible”.
By lunchtime that day, a taunting tweet from European Council President Donald Tusk added a sense of peril: “At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis?”
Tusk was telling Johnson he was marching into disaster of a split without an agreement.
(GRAPHIC: Understanding the Irish border - here)
At that precise moment Johnson broke from the orthodox Brexit playbook his predecessor Theresa May had stuck to unsuccessfully for more than two years.
That evening, after the Merkel call that one EU diplomatic source called Johnson’s “rendezvous with reality,” he rang Varadkar to set up a meeting.
It “came out of the wreckage of the Merkel call,” one UK source familiar with the conversation said. “We were in the last roll of the dice territory at that stage.”
It turned out to be a political masterstroke from the same man who had been on a path of brinkmanship just days before.
“Johnson left the call feeling the way to a deal was through Varadkar’s heart. But time was running out and he decided clearly to do the impossible – reopen the backstop, get a deal and campaign on a platform of having delivered an orderly Brexit,” said an EU official directly involved in Brexit talks.
They agreed to meet at Thornton Manor, a rustic Elizabethan house near Liverpool in northwest England, where the two strolled side by side down a grassy, tree-lined path among artistically manicured gardens.
“They spent at last half of the three-hour meeting one-on-one,” one Irish source said. “Boris emerged looking for coffee after about 45 minutes and went back in again.”
It was here that Johnson and Varadkar discussed a way to resolve the dreaded Irish backstop, the red line between Britain and the EU that no one had been able to bridge.
“The deal really became possible the minute Johnson dropped the idea of customs checks on the island of Ireland,” another EU diplomat said. “That happened in his meeting with Varadkar in the manor house. It unlocked the whole thing.”
Any doubts on the Irish side about Johnson’s intentions had been virtually erased, with Varadkar coming away saying “that he was certain that the prime minister wanted a deal.”
Johnson used his jovial character to disarm European leaders, who in the end saw past his early diplomatic gaffes and spoke of an affable man of substance. Video footage showed Johnson embracing and laughing with counterparts at the European Council on Thursday, a sharp contrast with May’s awkward and solitary appearance in the chamber just months earlier, when she was also left to eat alone while leaders sat down for an hours-long dinner together.
Once seen as a jester, who put his foot on the table at France’s Elysee Palace ahead of a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and abandoned a press conference with Luxembourg’s leader to avoid heckling protesters - had won credibility.
“It proves you can be both a clown and a statesman at the same time,” another EU diplomat told Reuters.
The man who likened himself to the cartoon character The Incredible Hulk breaking the shackles of EU imprisonment had been underestimated, as Macron put it on Friday at the close of an EU summit in Brussels where the deal was approved by European leaders.
“He may be colourful sometimes but we all are at times,” said Macron. “He’s a character, but he’s a leader with a real strategic vision. Those who didn’t take him seriously were wrong.”
Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Gabriela Baczynska, John Chalmers and Andreas Rinke in Brussels, Padraic Halpin in Dublin, Elizabeth Piper in London and Michel Rose in Paris; Editing by Bill Rigby