The road to Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal began in a dingy conference suite at a Sharm el-Sheikh hotel and ended in the ornate splendor of Windsor Castle’s White Drawing Room.
In symbolically gilded surroundings, a grinning Ursula von der Leyen gripped the hand of King Charles amid hopes for a new golden era of relations between Britain and the EU.
The EU Commission president could barely contain her relief at striking an agreement that both sides hope will put an end to more than two years of bitter cross-Channel griping.
Yet true to form, the historic tete-a-tete almost never happened, with not even the involvement of the well-oiled royal machine able to keep the Brexit chaos at bay.
The build-up served as a mini-summary of the freight negotiations. The plan for the meeting was leaked, followed swiftly by a false dawn as it was canceled almost immediately.
Next came an outcry from Tory MPs and members of the DUP, who accused the Government of politicizing the monarch by dragging him into the Northern Ireland row.
It was not until Monday morning that officials confirmed the gathering was back on, but even then No 10 and the Palace traded barbs as each claimed it was the other side’s idea.
Mrs von der Leyen, caught in the middle of this very British constitutional row, performed a deft diplomatic side-step by conspicuously avoiding all mention of the Protocol.
In her summary of the talks she made reference only to the “joint challenges and duties” the UK faces, putting particular emphasis on climate change which is close to the King’s heart.
Eventually, all was well that ended well, as evidenced by Mrs von der Leyen’s beaming smile. She and Mr. Sunak will now be hoping their Brexit deal enjoys a similarly happy fate.
The day began with the EU Commission boss striding off the 8.52am Eurostar from Brusselsleaving a gaggle of officials struggling to keep up.
“I’m looking forward to turning a page and opening a new chapter with our partner and friend,” she said as she made her way to Windsor. to sign on the dotted line. On every way she met two builders and posed for a picture with them – another moment of symbolism as London and Brussels look to construct a new, more solid partnership.
She was greeted outside the Fairmont Hotel, a stone’s throw from where the Magna Carta was signed, by Mr. Sunak, who gestured to three bronze statues of running horses. The Prime Minister had come prepared with a present for Stephanie Riso, the French deputy head of Mrs von der Leyen’s Cabinet, who attended the final talks on her birthday.
After briefly posing for the cameras, the pair got down to work jointly preparing for a press conference over a lunch of cucumber and coronation chicken sandwiches.
Another symbolic venue had been chosen for it in the form of Windsor Guildhall, the historic building where King Charles, then Prince of Wales, married Camilla.
The teamwork paid off as both leaders navigated a series of tricky questions. Mr. Sunak talked up the new deal as a major change to the original Protocol without being contradicted.
Mrs von der Leyen navigated a bear trap on the role of European judges under the deal – a red rag to the Eurosceptic bull – by delivering a firm but diplomatically understated answer.
Their joint performance was further evidence of the remarkable upturn in relations between the two sides that has taken place since Mr. Sunak took the reins in October.
It is an improvement that started at the pair’s very first meeting in early Novemberwhich took place in a small meeting room on the fringes of the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt.
Officials involved in the talks said it could not be underestimated how much that first positive impression helped break down barriers and led to the EU making major concessions.
James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, then took up the baton and bonded with Brussels negotiator Maros Sefcovic, a burly Slovak, over a shared love of Yes, Minister.
The pair agreed a strict policy of no leaking from the discussions which helped until almost the very end, something which sources said “genuinely made such a difference” to trust levels.
That was evidenced by Mr Sefcovic telling EU ambassadors at a private meeting last week that Mr Sunak was the most constructive prime minister the bloc had dealt with since 2016. So deeply dug was the negotiating “tunnel” that two thirds of diplomats at the UK’s embassy in Brussels are said to have been kept completely in the dark throughout.
By mid-January, the duo had hammered out the technical details of the agreement, and a fortnight ago Mr. Sunak took personal charge for the final stretch of the talks. The Prime Minister flew out to Belfast on Thursday, February 16 for talks with the major Northern Irish parties and hoped to unveil the deal the following Monday.
But after his proposals were received a frosty reception from the DUP he held off, instead promising to go back to the EU and get further concessions on democratic consent. Officials close to the talks said that, despite a public sense that the deal had been sewn up for weeks, the haggling over the final details went right down to the wire.
Having secured his demands from Brussels, the Prime Minister now faces the potentially trickier task of getting the compromise agreement past his own MPs.
Downing Street will have been encouraged by the early reaction to the announcement, with the DUP and the hardline European Research Group of Tory MPs holding their fire.
In contrast he secured the early backing of two Eurosceptic big beasts with former Cabinet ministers David Davis and Dr Liam Fox voicing firm support for the pact.
Before the deal was unveiled all the talk was about it plunging the Tory party into a new bout of Brexit infighting, reopening the wounds which have run deep since 2016.
What transpired was a steady trickle of MPs coming out in support of Mr. Sunak, with 30 putting their heads above the parapet in the first four hours after the announcement. More importantly, he secured the backing of key Eurosceptics within his Cabinet, including Suella Braverman who had made some disgruntled noises.
At a meeting to sign off the pact the Home Secretary conspicuously praised the deal, and particularly a clause which will give Belfast a veto over having to apply future EU laws.
Mr. Sunak told his top team that he “passionately believed with his head and his heart” that it was the best way to deliver certainty for the people of Northern Ireland.
It was a big boost after earlier in the day Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland minister who had been put on resignation watch, endorsed the pact as a “fantastic result”.
The next test for the Prime Minister was the Commons chamber, with all eyes trained on whether Brexiteer backbenchers would take the chance to tear into the pact.
Mr. Sunak chose to be flanked by James Cleverly and Chris Heaton-Harris, two of his Cabinet Eurosceptics, while Mr. Baker was notably invited to join the front bench. When he rose to his feet he received a rapturous reception from MPs, who bellowed “more” as he sat down at the end of a lengthy statement which was interrupted by frequent cheers.
Boris Johnsonpotentially the most formidable opponent of his deal, decided to stay away from the Commons, while the hardline Brexiteers held their tongues.
At one point, as Mr Sunak praised his predecessors in office, Labor MPs interrupted him with laughter and loudly heckled: “Where’s Boris?”
Instead, it was another former prime minister, Theresa May, who intervened. A hush descended on the chamber as she stood up to urge MPs to back the agreement.
Potential pitfalls still stand in front of Mr. Sunak with the ERG set to meet this evening to try to thrash out a common position on whether to oppose the pact. But as the sun set on another huge Brexit day in Westminster, his allies were increasingly confident that he had pulled off the definitive deal.