Visibly nervous and decidedly twitchy, the Prime Minister was pacing up and down in his Downing Street study when the mobile phone in his suit pocket started to vibrate.
‘It’s Frosty,’ he bellowed at the handful of officials gathered in his office.
It was 2.15pm on Christmas Eve and the newly-ennobled David Frost, the UK’s chief EU negotiator, was on the line.
More than 25 hours had elapsed since a historic trade deal agreement had been struck ‘in principle’ with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. And then the waiting had gone on… and on… and on…
The dream of a deal before Christmas was fast receding and No Deal was still a possibility.
But now a broad grin was spreading across Boris’ face. Whatever Frost was saying, the PM was liking. ‘Do the deal, Frosty,’ he said calmly.
Barely able to suppress his euphoria, he ordered a Zoom call to be set up in the Cabinet room with von der Leyen who was flanked by Frost and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator.
Who ordered anchovies? Pizzas arrive at the Berlaymont building in Brussels on Wednesday as talks dragged on through the evening
Just out of shot in London were some of the people who had been working round the clock, including Boris’ chief of staff Sir Eddie Lister, his principle private secretary Martin Reynolds, and James Slack, head of communications.
When the EC president confirmed that the deal had been signed off, there was a burst of applause in the Cabinet Room.
‘It was a hugely emotional moment,’ said one source close to the British negotiating team.
Boris went back to his office to apply the finishing touches to his press conference statement, which he delivered in a herringbone shirt and carefully selected tie – sporting a delicate motif of fish.
On his desk, next to the 1,500 pages of agreement text, was a strategically placed can of pale ale made by the longest established brewery in the north-east of England – Camerons.
The late-night pizzas (pictured) that helped seal Brussels deal on Christmas Eve
‘It was a clear nod to the Red Wall seats Boris won at the election by promising to ‘Get Brexit done’,’ said one senior Tory.
But some wags suggested it was actually a dig at former PM David Cameron, who had made an in/out referendum a reality.
Whatever the truth, a year on from Mr Johnson’s general election landslide, this trade deal – the blueprint for how the UK and the EU will trade after severing ties in place since we joined the Common Market in 1973 – was truly a landmark moment in the last four years of Brexit high drama.
A failure to agree terms could have left Britain and the EU in a bitter standoff, with devastating economic consequences for both.
While much of the talks revolved around issues of state aid and disputes over resolution mechanisms, they were nearly sunk by the politically fraught – but economically marginal – problem of fish. The fishing and shellfish trade is worth a tiny 0.1 per cent of British GDP, but in coastal towns and villages on both sides of the Channel it became an issue of totemic importance.
Much of the credit will deservedly go to Lord Frost, 55 – Boris calls him ‘The Great Frost’ – and his team.
Frost, unlike his predecessor Olly Robbins, an ardent Europhile and favourite of then PM Theresa May who believed passionately that Brexit was a mistake, was a Leaver through and through. A former career diplomat, he became a hardline Eurosceptic while working in Brussels in the early 1990s, appalled by the excesses of the Eurocracy. He quit the Foreign Office in 2013 but was wooed back by Boris – as a former Brussels correspondent, Boris knew Frost of old – when he became Foreign Secretary in 2016.
During the final round of talks Frost, an Oxford scholar of Medieval French whose team wore Union Flag branded lanyards, more than lived up to the name of ‘Frosty’.
Winning on pints: Beer
It not only described his style of negotiation but, in the dying days of the talks, was an apt metaphor for his mood with EU counterparts.
Early on he devised a ‘four-box grid’ to describe negotiating styles: Teenager, Tank, Mouse and Leader. Frost said the EU inclined to the first two, while the UK had been the Mouse under Theresa May.
According to one of the team ‘he reminded us we had to be the Leader in the room… we were told to be polite but robust’.
There was certainly no love lost between Frost and Barnier.
Frost’s habit of referring in conversation to the EU as ‘your organisation’ irritated the tetchy Barnier, who snapped back: ‘You ask for respect for your sovereignty. Please respect ours.’ A British source said: ‘Barnier did not accept we were being robust, he complained we were being aggressive.
‘We weren’t aggressive, we were being direct. It’s fair to say Frosty and Barnier will not stay in touch. They really didn’t like each other. But when history is written I suspect we will find many of the EU leaders had lost all faith in Barnier.’
It was in the last ten days that Boris Johnson and von der Leyen became personally involved and, among other issues, resolved a sticky dispute over components for electric cars which are set to become a major export and domestic market for the Nissan and Toyota plants in the UK.
The fishing issue was tougher to solve. The pair spoke a dozen times on the phone, four times on Wednesday alone.
While Boris Johnson is notorious for ignoring detail, here he was all over the small print, having pledged he would never ‘sell out’ our trawlers. A real sign of progress came this week when Stephanie Riso, chief adviser to von der Leyen, started attending the talks.
On Tuesday evening, Riso called Frost and told him the EU would drop its longstanding demand that it should be able to hit Britain with new tariffs if it imposed restrictions on access to fishing waters. In EU speak, it’s known as cross-retaliation.
In one of the many crunch calls between the PM and von der Leyen, he told her: ‘Viel hummer, kein hammer’ – German for ‘lots of lobster, no hammer’. The European president has always referred to the EU’s desire for cross-retaliation tariffs as the ‘hammer’.
In return, Boris compromised by accepting a reduction of 25 per cent on EU fishing with a five-and-a-half-year transition period.
David Frost was jubilant at the EU climbdown and telephoned his officials, some of whom were already back at their hotel packing to go home for Christmas. They returned to work and by Wednesday afternoon the agreement had been struck in principle. Boris Johnson was seen punching the air in conversation with von der Leyen during a Zoom call on Wednesday afternoon. But even then, trouble was brewing, as both sides became bogged down in a dispute over ‘pelagic’ fish.
Coastal pelagic fish include anchovies and sardines, while oceanic pelagic fish are swordfish, tuna and mackerel. It was a numbers game, splicing and dicing quotas and trying to agree to a policing mechanism to reassure French, Belgian, Danish and Dutch fishermen.
It was the fact that the fish quotas were measured in financial terms, not tonnage, which caused the disagreement. One senior source said: ‘We thought the deal was going to be announced by 7pm on Wednesday so we got little sleep in London that night. They got no sleep in Brussels at all.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on a call to President of European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen
As one member of the British delegation acidly observed: ‘Oceanic pelagic fish also include sharks – who appeared to be all on the EU side of the water. We were staring for hours at spreadsheets on mackerel. I swear some of us will never eat fish again.’
As the evening unfolded, a delivery of pizzas turned up for weary officials – causing some excitement, though to regular observers it had been an all-too-common sight over the years.
On the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building, the headquarters of the European Commission, von der Leyen took control. Sidelining Barnier altogether, she hit the phones to EU leaders and kept Johnson on speed dial, while her officials talked directly to EU states with strong fishing interests such as France and Holland.
It was a huge boost to the British team’s morale. Barnier was losing both sides of the room. ‘There were raised voices on his side, not ours,’ added the official.
Before Barnier was edged aside, frustration had been growing at the seemingly insoluble dispute over mackerel. Some of the British delegation, exhausted and fearing they would not be home for Christmas, broke down in tears. ‘It was like pulling out my eyelashes one by one. It is painful but everything has to be so precise,’ said one.
They had tried to bolster spirits by sending private WhatsApp messages about various EU officials they had to deal with. They also took to singing songs from Les Miserables. Their favourite? One More Day, which summed up how talks were dragging on.
The chorus includes the lyric: ‘Raise the flag of freedom high… there’s a new world to be won.’
Then it emerged the EU had used the wrong figures to calculate what pelagic fish EU boats would be able to land from British waters. Agreement was swift after that.
By the time the deal was signed, the two teams had spent in total more than 2,000 hours shut in rooms with little or no natural light in London and Brussels. They took to sharing Vitamin D tablets.
But that’s all history now. The triumphant British team have replaced that Les Mis favourite with a song from another musical: The Room Where It Happens, from Hamilton.
‘No one else was in the room where it happened. No one really knows how the game is played. The art of the trade. How the sausage gets made.’ And, of course, ‘how Brexit gets done’.