“Is that you, Leo? Ah good. I think we need to meet.”
“Why? Have you actually got anything new to say, Boris?”
“Um, er. I think I’ve already made a huge compromise…”
“By offering a worse Brexit deal to the one that had already been agreed.”
“Yes, well, anyway… I still think we ought to look as if we’re doing something. Neither of us wants to get all the blame. And who knows, miracles do sometimes happen.”
“Fine. How about we meet halfway in Liverpool?”
“Ah… Liverpool’s not so good for me. Had a bit of trouble there a while ago and had to scurry back to apologise. But how about Thornton Manor on the Wirral? It calls itself Merseyside’s premier events venue on its website. Coleen Rooney had her 21st birthday party there and Michael Fallon gave it the thumbs up after his wedding.”
“I think that might have been a different Mr & Mrs Fallon. But it sounds as if it will do. See you there tomorrow.”
Shortly after 12.30, Boris Johnson’s car pulled pulled into the grounds of Thornton Manor followed 20 minutes later by the Irish taoiseach. Johnson, tie extended to Trumpian length to compensate for his deficiencies in all other areas, met Leo Varadkar at the front door and, after posing for a handshake, the two men scurried inside.
“Right,” said Varadkar. “Where shall we start?”
“How about with the prawn mayonnaise sandwiches?”
The talks themselves were rather more sticky. You go first. No, you go first. Could they agree on the fact that, in an ideal world, they would both like to reach a deal? They could. That was a start. A big start. They could even agree on what the sticking points were. Consent and a customs union. There again everyone could agree on that as they had been the two clear areas of disagreement ever since Johnson had dreamt up his new deal weeks back.
Solutions were rather thinner on the ground. What would work for the Incredible Sulk to keep the DUP and the hardline Spartans of the European Research Group onside were no-go areas for the taoiseach. And what Varadkar could sell to the Irish and other EU leaders would send Arlene Foster into a meltdown. Two hours in and they were talking about The Wizard of Oz and the Yellow Brick Road.
Then Boris dimmed the lights and turned on the soft mood music. He hadn’t picked a wedding venue for nothing. He moved his chair closer to Leo and started whispering sweet nothings in his ear. He’d leave his wife for Leo. Varadkar pointed out that he already had left his wife. Boris leaned in closer. OK, OK, he’d leave Carrie for Leo. At a push he’d even leave Dilyn the Dog.
The Sulk was now in his element. If there was one thing at which he excelled it was telling people exactly what they wanted to hear. Even – especially – if he didn’t mean a word of it. Only the previous day he had told Damian Green that a no-deal pledge would not be an election promise while saying the complete opposite to the ERG.
“Tell me what you want, what you really really want,” Johnson cooed. Varadkar tried to resist. He knew he was being played – knew that Boris was a pathological liar who couldn’t even be trusted to keep his hands to himself in a Google Hangout – but he couldn’t stop himself from being sucked in.
No veto for the DUP. And Northern Ireland to remain more or less in the customs union. That’s what Varadkar wanted. Boris purred and crossed his fingers. He thought he might just be able to do something that. There again he might not. He was like the wind. But couldn’t they both just enjoy the moment?
Three hours in, both men decided enough was enough. They’d chatted for three hours, which was long enough to make it look as if they had had a serious enough discussion. Now to write a joint statement. Talks had been productive. They had talked about a lot of things including Brexit. They could both see a pathway to a deal. Even if it wasn’t necessarily the same pathway. Though of a possible landing zone there was still no sight.
Johnson sloped off back to Downing Street. Though lying still came as second nature to him, these types of secret assignations did make him feel a bit grubby. But he’d got what he wanted. If not real progress, then at least the hint of real progress. Enough to get him off the hook for another day.
On the journey back to Liverpool’s John Lennon airport, Varadkar had rapidly come back to his senses. He couldn’t believe he’d momentarily fallen for the Sulk’s patter. “There is a chance of a deal before the end of October,” he told reporters. A small to vanishing chance unless Boris faced down the DUP and the ERG. But he’d left the ball in the UK’s court, left channels for negotiations open and had avoided getting the blame for collapsing the talks. It had been a shit job, but someone had to do it.