More than four years ago, Britain voted to take back control. Last night Boris Johnson decided he’d have to do it in person.
Wary of the tactics used to humiliate Theresa May, the Prime Minister has been reluctant to travel to Brussels.
His predecessor was frequently invited to EU events, only for the bloc’s leaders to publicly reject her plans.
But after his chief negotiator warned talks were on the brink of collapse – and two lengthy phone calls to the European Commission president failed to break the deadlock – Mr Johnson accepted that the benefits of going to Brussels now outweighed the risks.
‘Anyone who has been involved in negotiations knows that sometimes you have got to look each other in the eyes,’ an insider said yesterday.
‘There is a limit to how far you can get just talking on the phone. But this is the last step.’
The move comes after days of fruitless talks following a diplomatic bombshell from Michel Barnier last week.
After his chief negotiator warned talks were on the brink of collapse – and two lengthy phone calls to the European Commission president (pictured right) failed to break the deadlock – Mr Johnson (pictured left) accepted that the benefits of going to Brussels now outweighed the risks
The move comes after days of fruitless talks following a diplomatic bombshell from Michel Barnier (pictured) last week
On Thursday afternoon, the EU’s chief negotiator re-tabled old demands for the UK to respect not just existing EU laws, but all laws that the bloc might pass in the future.
The move – blamed by Downing Street on Emmanuel Macron – dismayed Britain’s chief negotiator, Lord Frost, who knew the PM would never accept it.
Mr Johnson had been preparing to agree a ‘non-regression’ clause that would see the UK maintain existing standards on issues such as state aid, workers’ rights and the environment.
However, sources said the demand for the UK to align with future EU regulations was ‘a complete non-starter’.
Lord Frost was so alarmed that he broke off from the talks in a dingy conference room in the Business Department – dubbed ‘the Cave’ – to brief the PM in person.
Mr Johnson was later heard singing Waltzing Matilda in his office in an apparent reference to trading with the EU on Australian-style terms – No 10 code for No Deal.
The weekend saw the Chief Whip Mark Spencer bombarded with messages from Tories urging Mr Johnson not to back down.
With Michael Gove having travelled to Brussels yesterday, rumours continued to swirl about possible compromise
Eurosceptic MP Andrew Bridgen warned publicly that the PM would be ‘finished’ if he failed to protect British sovereignty.
UK officials were quick to point the finger at Mr Macron for torpedoing talks that had seemed destined for success just days earlier.
Environment Secretary George Eustice admitted: ‘There’s no denying that the end of last week was quite a setback.’
One source said: ‘At the start of the week we saw Macron agitating with other EU capitals that they were giving away too much.
‘Then you see Barnier bringing this [clause] back and the whole process goes backwards. I think everyone can join the dots.
‘We want a deal but it has to be on the basis that we are a sovereign country again. Some people still seem to be struggling with the concept that we are going to be an independent country setting our own rules. If it stays like that there will be no deal.’
On Saturday the PM spent an hour on the phone to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.
On Saturday the PM spent an hour on the phone to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission
The call was by all accounts cordial but unproductive.
Lord Frost and his team were soon back at London’s St Pancras station, boarding the Eurostar for another round of face-to-face talks.
Amid growing signs of tension on the EU side, Dutch sources briefed the media that the bloc was preparing to drop France’s hardline demands on fishing – only for the claim to be denied by both sides.
With Michael Gove having travelled to Brussels yesterday, rumours continued to swirl about possible compromises.
Mr Johnson, meanwhile, got to grips with a crab on a walkabout in his constituency with his London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey.
Later he spent another 40 minutes on the phone with Mrs von der Leyen – but this call also yielded no significant results.
Mr Johnson had attempted to smooth the way to a deal by offering to drop controversial measures relating to Northern Ireland, which ministers admit would ‘break international law’ by going against parts of last year’s Withdrawal Agreement. The move appeared to have no effect.
‘There has not been any progress since Friday,’ said one source close to the negotiations.
‘It is clear that the current process has got to the end of the road – there are only so many times that negotiators can go round the same issues without some fresh political input.
‘We still think we can get a deal but there is a very real chance that we might not got there.’
‘We have made no tangible progress,’ No 10 said last night. ‘It’s clear this must now continue politically.’