From red lines to white smoke: the inside story of 12 hours when Theresa May secured a Brexit deal

Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker - Bloomberg
Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker - Bloomberg

The first inkling that a deal had been done on the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union was a dawn message posted on Twitter of a chimney emitting white smoke.

Martin Selmayr, chief of staff to European Union president Jean-Claude Juncker, had tweeted the image of the chimney on the Vatican which - as Catholics know - emits white smoke when a new Pope has been chosen. It was an in-joke. The day before, at its midday daily press briefing, the Commission had bemoaned the fact there was no "white smoke" from London. Things had clearly moved on.

Journalists had gone into overdrive 11 hours earlier when it emerged that Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, planned a dawn statement in Brussels.

The emergence of Mr Tusk’s plans was the first outward sign of frantic phone calls being made between 10 Downing Street, Brussels, Dublin and Northern Ireland to agree a deal on Britain's exit from the EU to move onto talks about future trading arrangements.

Theresa May, the Prime Minister, had taken charge of the process after being told the EU’s deadline could not slip any further for “sufficient progress” to be agreed next week.

Shortly, afterwards at 8pm, Number 10 confirmed Mrs May had spoken to “Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr Juncker in separate telephone calls”.

The spokesman added: “Discussions about taking forward the Brexit process are ongoing.”

An hour later officials were hopeful of a deal, briefing that Mrs May was planning to fly to Brussels either later that evening or first thing in the morning.

Nigel Dodds, the Westminster leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, was already in talks with Mrs May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell and Chief Whip Julian Smith about a new form of words to ease the Northern Irish MPs' concerns about the future of the Irish border.

The group, including Sammy Wilson and Jeffrey Donaldson,had been spotted deep in talks in a strategy meeting in Moncrieff’s restaurant hours earlier, under the noses of journalists in the Parliamentary press gallery.

Then, just after midnight, Mr Smith posted a message on wrote on Twitter how Mrs May had “led very challenging negotiations this week with energy, persistence & drive".

Mr Smith tried to reassure Tory MPs already concerned that Britain was about to agree a duff deal with the EU.

He said: “I have done everything I can to represent the wide range of views of @Conservatives colleagues as chief whip …

“I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that the views of @Conservatives MPs are fully reflected in phase 2.”

The deal was finally done in the next four hours, with new clarity on the future of European Union nationals in the UK and the status of the Irish border.

By 2.30am, the breakthrough had been achieved. One official said: “It is done now. May flies in a couple of hours.”

The Telegraph’s Europe Editor Peter Foster was first with the news, saying on Twitter: “3am update: understand Theresa May will get her day trip to Brussels. The needle has been threaded. For now, at least. #brexit

Mrs May grabbed a few hours’ sleep.  Two hours later at 5am Arlene Foster, the DUP leader whose concerns had stalled talks on Monday, summoned a reporter from Sky News.

The DUP had secured “six substantive changes” to the text on the Irish border.

She revealed she has been “negotiating directly with the Prime Minister” and working “right into the early hours” of this morning. 

Crucially Ms Foster added: “There is no red line down the Irish sea and clear confirmation that the entirety of the UK is leaving the European Union, leaving the single market and leaving the customs union.”

Mr Smith paid tribute to the DUP in another tweet, saying he had been "privileged to work with @duponline all week to ensure that Northern Ireland will never be separated from U.K as we leave EU".

Key questions | Northern Ireland and Brexit
Key questions | Northern Ireland and Brexit

The stage was set for Mrs May. The Prime Minister arrived in Brussels just after 5.40am UK time and headed straight into meetings with Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU President.

An hour later, while it was still dark in Westminster, Mrs May and Mr Juncker emerged blinking into the lights of the press briefing room at the European Commission.

Theresa May has arrived.

— James Crisp (@JamesCrisp6) December 8, 2017

Sufficient progress had been made, said Mr Juncker, adding: "We have now made the breakthrough we need”, paying tribute to Mrs May. It had been a long night.

An hour later Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, observed ruefully that the terms of the exit were the easy part; the tough trade talks were about to begin.

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