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Brexit explained the story so far and where we are now

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Tue 28 Jan 2020

Brexit explained the story so far and where we are now

In the end it was Sunderland that showed the way again. Three and a half years earlier voters in the city had provided the first inkling that Britain was about to take the momentous decision to leave the European Union after 40 years of membership.

And on a cold, wet December night last year the city’s voters sent another clear message to Westminster: they wanted Brexit completed.

By the next morning that message had been repeated across the country with an emphatic election victory for the Tories and a prime minister who had run a campaign pegged on a central pledge to “get Brexit done”.

Now at 11pm next Friday — ironically delivered on European time — Britain will finally leave the EU.

But without even having taken place, Brexit has arguably already had the most profound effect on British politics of any event in the past century outside wartime.

It has ended the careers of two prime ministers, eight cabinet ministers and over 80 MPs.

It has forced two elections that upended traditional political loyalties and tested the country’s unwritten constitution to its limits.

And with Britain’s future relationship with the EU still to be negotiated, the profound implications of Brexit are far from finished business.

Boris Johnson and the Brexiteers are now the masters of all they survey. But for the first time they are also exclusively in charge of its destiny and will be judged on its success.

So how did we get to where we are now? What were the pivotal moments? And could things have turned out differently?

Confusion reigns
From the bleary-eyed jubilation of leavers to the incomprehension of ministers and officials in Whitehall, the referendum result was marked most notably by confusion

David Cameron resigned despite having insisted that he wouldn’t. Jeremy Corbyn called for the immediate triggering of Article 50 without seeming to know what it meant.

And because Mr Cameron had banned civil servants from doing any kind of preparation for a Leave vote Whitehall had no idea where to start.

A team was hastily scrambled in the Cabinet Office under the leadership of a relatively unknown senior Home Office official called Olly Robbins.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove launched a Brexiteer Tory leadership bid before falling out, standing against each other and then dropping out of the race.

After a few tumultuous days just one candidate remained: Theresa May, a Remainer who had gone to strenuous efforts not to imprint her views on the referendum campaign.

Even before she entered Downing Street she had coined the first of many Brexit clichés designed to avoid hard choices: “Brexit,” she said, “means Brexit”, before pledging not to hold a general election.

The confusion didn’t improve with Mrs May’s new government. To build a cabinet comprising Leavers and Remainers she brought in a trio of Brexiteer backbenchers to the top table, created two new departments for them to run and gave them a stately home to share.

The new ministers, David Davis (Department for Exiting the European Union), Liam Fox (Department for International Trade) and Mr Johnson (Foreign Office), were anxious to reassure the public with a continuation of the upbeat rhetoric of the referendum campaign.

The trade deal with the EU would be one of the “easiest in history”, Dr Fox said. Mr Davis said Brussels would be keen to start immediately negotiating a new relationship with the UK, while Mr Johnson reassured the public that leaving the EU did not mean leaving the single market.

The EU had its own ideas on how to proceed. They rejected a plea by Downing Street to begin informal talks before the government had officially triggered Article 50 setting a two-year deadline for unravelling 40 years of integration.

They also correctly anticipated that their greatest weakness would lie in their unity as 27 states with different interests and relationships with the UK.

In what, with hindsight, was a masterstroke Donald Tusk, the European Council president, quickly announced that Brexit negotiations would not be carried out at a governmental level.

The terms of Britain’s departure would be negotiated by the European Commission only. Member states would ratify a deal but never negotiate it.

And they stuck to it, both in refusing to allow Mrs May to engage in unilateral negotiations and refusing to talk at all before Britain set the two-year clock ticking.

Brexiteers say that Mrs May made a strategic blunder by triggering Article 50 too early. But the political reality in autumn 2016 was that she had no choice. With Europe refusing even to discuss privately what kind of deal might be possible, Mrs May was facing intense pressure from Brexiteers who were increasingly anxious for tangible progress.

At the Conservative Party conference in October Mrs May was forced to announce that Article 50 would be triggered no later than March 2017.

The announcement of the Article 50 deadline grabbed the headlines but, looking back now, Mrs May’s Sunday afternoon conference speech in Birmingham was far more significant for its less reported passages. In two short, coded sections Mrs May set down the parameters of her Brexit blueprint that have dominated the debate ever since.

In the first she effectively ruled out Britain remaining in the EU’s single market by demanding full control over immigration; and in the second she ruled out remaining in a customs union.

Whitehall was appalled. In Brussels, Britain’s ambassador Ivan Rogers began to hear from his EU counterparts: “Clearly you’re leaving the single market and the customs union. Why then can’t [you] just get on with it?”

He told them that they should not take party political speeches at face value, and that they did not represent government policy.

But he was wrong. The decision to use conference to set out the red lines on Brexit was deliberate. Nick Timothy, Mrs May’s powerful chief of staff, knew that using a party political speech in this way meant that the announcement did not need to go through the normal Whitehall processes or collective cabinet responsibility to be approved. And, having made the pledge, it would be hard for opponents to reverse.

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, hadn’t seen it. Mr Davis hadn’t seen it.

Mr Robbins, who had then become Mrs May’s chief Europe adviser, hadn’t seen it.

The prime minister’s red lines, which have defined and bedevilled the Brexit process to this day and will still in the future, were created in almost total secrecy, without scrutiny and without challenge.

The clock starts ticking
Early on March 29, 2017 two civil servants, carrying a black suitcase, caught a Eurostar train bound for Brussels

In it was the letter written by Mrs May the night before informing the EU of the government’s decision to trigger the Article 50 process.

Once in Brussels (the round-trip cost the taxpayer more than £1,000 for two business premier seats) the briefcase and the letter were handed to Britain’s new EU ambassador Sir Tim Barrow, who walked the short distance from Britain’s EU mission to formally present it to Mr Tusk. Both men looked suitably uncomfortable at the bizarre photo opportunity.

The six-page letter contained little that seemed new at the time. But with hindsight it showed how little understanding there was in London at the pitfalls of the process ahead, particularly on the issue of the Northern Irish border.

Mrs May told Mr Tusk that the UK wanted to agree the terms of Britain’s future relationship “alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU”, negotiating a “bold and ambitious” free-trade agreement with the bloc by March 2019.

The Northern Irish border merited little more than a passing mention: “We want to avoid a return to a hard border between our two countries,” she wrote.

She concluded: “Because the future partnership between the UK and the EU is of such importance to both sides, I am sure it can be agreed in the time period set out by the [Article 50] Treaty.”

At the time she triggered Article 50 Mrs May and her advisers knew that getting such a deal through the Commons with the slender majority of 12 she inherited from Mr Cameron would be a difficult challenge.

Downing Street rightly recognised that any deal would require compromise, and compromise would be hard to force through with the ideological differences in the Commons. The polling suggested the Tories would win the election with a majority of at least 100.

But conversely one single factor undermined Mrs May’s ability to deliver the aspirations set out in her letter: it was her decision, made on an Easter walking holiday in Snowdonia two weeks later, to go back on her word and call a general election.

But, of course, the gamble failed. Mrs May lost her majority and found herself having to turn to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to prop up her government, leaving her shorn of the power and authority to dictate the terms of Brexit.

It had been a disastrous miscalculation.

The first negotiating mistakes
It did not take long for Theresa May to realise discussions in Brussels were only half of the government’s headache

Ten days after the election in June 2017, Brexit negotiations formally began in Brussels between David Davis and the EU’s recently appointed chief negotiator Michel Barnier — a French former EU commissioner quickly caricatured by the Brexit-supporting press as an anti-British Eurocrat intent on punishing the UK.

To mark the start of the talks Mr Davis gave Mr Barnier a book on hiking and Mr Barnier reciprocated with a hiking stick. It was the high point of their relationship.

Because behind the smiles and faux bonhomie, things were already going wrong.

Mr Davis had claimed in the run-up to the meeting that the UK would insist on parallel negotiations on the withdrawal agreement and the future relationship.

“This will be the row of the summer,” he predicted.

Mr Barnier had other ideas and made clear on day one that the EU would not discuss the future relationship until Britain had agreed to pay the divorce bill, settle citizens’ rights and agree measures to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland.

There would be no parallel talks; they would be sequential with the EU’s priorities being dealt with first.

Mr Davis didn’t care for Mr Barnier’s manner or how he used press conferences to ambush him.

He wanted a showdown but, against his wishes and undermining his credibility, Downing Street capitulated. The UK accepted the EU schedule for the talks, meaning discussions on a future trade deal would start only when the EU had got what it wanted on the money. The gloss put on the climbdown by Mr Davis was that this did not matter because, in the latest Brexit cliché, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

But this hid the fact that if the UK wanted the time to agree a detailed future relationship it couldn’t play brinkmanship.

Mr Davis largely blamed Mr Robbins for the climbdown. He believed that his permanent secretary (who was also Mrs May’s chief Europe adviser) was cutting him out of the critical negotiating decisions while he himself — extraordinarily — had little private access to the prime minister. He didn’t even have her mobile number.

Relations between the two men became poisonous and petty. Mr Robbins, who had been trailing around Europe on Easyjet talking to EU national capitals, was incensed when Mr Davis demanded the use of a private RAF plane to fly to Brussels. He tried unsuccessfully to veto it.

Although not widely recognised at the time, the fracture came to a head in September when Mr Robbins left the Brexit department to lead a new “Europe unit” inside the Cabinet Office.

From that point on, Downing Street took over the Brexit talks entirely, with Mr Robbins, rather than Mr Davis, as the prime minister’s real negotiator.

It was this move, more than any other, that undermined Brexiteers’ faith that the prime minister (or the Whitehall machine) would deliver the kind of EU exit that they had envisaged. It ultimately led to her and Mr Robbins’s departures.

With Mr Davis out of the way talks began in earnest in Brussels. A team of officials from across Whitehall decamped to the Belgian capital to engage in line-by-line negotiations over the exact terms of Britain’s departure.

The Brexit department spent more than £150,000 on flights and hotels to put them all up.

Questions that seemed vital at the time but have now largely been forgotten were pored over: would EU citizens living in Britain with criminal records be allowed to stay after Brexit? What role would the European Court of Justice play in ruling on their rights? Most importantly how much, if anything, would Britain pay to settle its debts — if indeed, there were any debts?

But negotiations in Brussels were only half of the government’s headache.

Legislation to enable Britain’s departure to happen at all had to be passed by parliament but since the general election the House of Commons was not one that could be easily controlled.

The government’s strategy was, as the Brexit secretary privately described it at the time, to bring in a “dreadnought” bill that could have chunks blown off it by MPs and still survive.

The bill’s first function was to set in law Britain’s departure by repealing the European Communities Act which had brought Britain into the EU. The second was to ensure legal stability by incorporating all existing EU law into the UK statute book.

What Mr Davis may not have appreciated fully was that MPs opposed to the government’s hardline approach would not attempt to blow chunks off the dreadnought but instead construct a new troublesome edifice to be fitted onto it.

Clause nine of the original bill gave ministers the unilateral power to negotiate and conclude the withdrawal agreement without needing the legal approval of parliament.

But by the time the bill left parliament a small band of Conservative MPs, provocatively dubbed “mutineers” by the Brexit press, had turned this on its head.

In a series of late-night, knife-edge votes and last-minute concessions by ministers in the Commons, they forced the government into a double lock: first to put any deal to a “meaningful vote” of MPs, who would decide whether to approve it or not, and second to come back to the Commons with an alternative plan should the deal be rejected. Any other Brexit deal would be illegal.

It was not what the government wanted at all.

Although not widely appreciated at the time, the reality was that through a series of seemingly arcane procedural changes to the bill the “mutineers” had driven a coach and horses through the government’s strategy.

It had laid the seeds for parliament, rather than the government, to dictate the terms of Brexit should they not approve of Mrs May’s deal.

And it meant that parliament, not the prime minister, now held the whip hand.

The “mutineers”, having been bloodied by the battles over the withdrawal bill, became, like the Brexiteers, a force to be reckoned with.

A deal and a big problem
A new issue becomes the defining dilemma of the Brexit negotiations: how to manage the Irish border

On the morning of Monday December 4, 2017 Mrs May flew out to Brussels.

As she was in the air the president of the European Council took to Twitter to declare “tell me why I like Mondays!”, a jokey reference to the Boomtown Rats song suggesting that the carefully choreographed plan to announce a breakthrough in the Brexit talks was on track.

Within hours, the putative deal was in tatters on an issue that was to become the defining dilemma of the Brexit negotiations: how to manage the Irish border.

A draft text of the deal, due to be signed by Mrs May and the EU, was leaked to the Irish media who claimed Mrs May had accepted the principle that there would be “no regulatory divergence” between Northern Ireland and the EU’s single market and customs union rules.

In fact, the draft agreement used much looser language on “alignment” but the difference was lost on Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader, who had been briefed on the deal but had not seen the text.

While Mrs May was lunching with Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission president, on roasted scallops and turbot, a furious Mrs Foster was demanding to speak to the prime minister.

The lunch had to be interrupted while Mrs May tried, and failed, to mollify Mrs Foster. In the end she had no choice but to return to the lunch table and announce that the deal was off.

The setback was temporary but the fudge that resolved it proved to be Brexit’s Catch 22.

In two short paragraphs in the December joint report Britain agreed to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, avoid regulatory and tariff divergence between Britain and Northern Ireland, while at the same time pledging that Britain would still be able to strike its own trade deals.

No one had any idea how to achieve these contradictory aims while abiding by Mrs May’s red lines of leaving the single market and customs union. Even though the withdrawal agreement has now been ratified they still don’t.

The path to Chequers
The government sets out their plan for a future relationship with the European Union, but dissenting voices threaten to fracture the Conservative Party

In the early evening of Friday July 6, 2018 Downing Street released a three-page statement to the media. Signed at bottom “HM Government”, it outlined a decision taken by the cabinet at the prime minister’s Chequers retreat that day setting out the government’s plan for a future relationship with the European Union.

Every minister present signed up, with those thinking of resigning told they would have to walk down the long Chequers drive and call a cab if they couldn’t live with the deal on the table.

In the event Mr Davis chose to hold his tongue and take his chauffeur-driven ministerial limo back to London before resigning less than 48 hours later.

Mr Johnson, keen not to be outflanked by his Brexiteer rival, quickly followed suit.

Before the government had had the chance to put flesh on the bones of the Chequers declaration, the “HM Government” sign-off rang remarkably hollow.

At its heart the Chequers plan was an attempt to extricate the government from the Irish border conundrum that it had agreed to in the December joint declaration.

It proposed establishing a “free trade area for goods” between Britain and the EU that would provide frictionless borders not just between the North and South of Ireland but across the Channel as well.

To square the circle of how you could achieve this while allowing the UK to strike its own free-trade deals, Whitehall came up with an ingenious and fiendishly complicated plan that they called the “facilitated customs arrangement”.

The details matter little now as the proposal did not survive first contact with European negotiators.

“The EU cannot and the EU will not delegate the application of its customs policy to a non-member who would not be subject to the EU’s governance structures,” Mr Barnier said.

Chequers was dead, the Irish border question no closer to being solved, and Mrs May’s two-year struggle to keep her party united behind the government’s approach to Brexit had failed.

She now had two powerful new opponents in Mr Johnson and Mr Davis on the back benches, while Brexiteers increasingly appeared to be a party within a party, intent on waging civil war.

It was the beginning of the end.

Countdown to a deal
Success abroad leads to anguish at home as May snatches defeat from the jaws of victory

It is one of the biggest ironies of the negotiation process that Mrs May’s most significant victory over Brussels was to cause her the greatest anguish back home.

In a series of marathon negotiating sessions in October 2018, the EU conceded for the first time that the whole of the UK could be included in the so-called Northern Irish backstop.

This would give the UK access to the EU markets without following single market rules, without paying into EU budgets, without following judgments by the European Court of Justice and without having to be part of either the common agricultural or common fisheries policy.

What’s more the backstop was not time limited. The EU had quietly jettisoned most of its previous red lines to accommodate the unique historical problems of Northern Ireland.

It was objectively a stunning and significant win for the government that would arguably give Britain a stronger hand in the trade talks to come.

But the problem was the domestic politics: it fell foul of the totemic Brexiteer pledge that Britain’s departure from the EU would herald a new era as a global trading behemoth. Under the backstop, as agreed, the UK’s ability to strike free-trade deals would be very much curtailed, possibly for ever.

Even before the deal was published in November Brexiteers made common cause with the DUP in strident opposition to Mrs May’s plan.

Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, resigned and for 24 hours Mrs May’s future hung in the balance as Mr Gove and other Brexiteer cabinet ministers weighed up their positions.

Ultimately Mr Gove decided to stay for fear of playing Judas twice and the cabinet revolt fizzled out.

A miscalculation by the European Research Group (ERG) resulted in them triggering a leadership election without the numbers to land a killer blow.

That meant that Mrs May was safe in her job for the time being, but at the head of party irreconcilably split trying to force a deal through parliament for which even she could not muster much enthusiasm.

The supposed day of Brexit was just three months away.

It soon became clear that Mrs May simply did not have the numbers to get her deal through parliament. And faced with the prospect of no deal, talk soon began to move towards extension.

So when Mrs May wrote to Mr Tusk on March 20 requesting a three-month extension until June 30 to get her withdrawal deal over the line it was done in the expectation that it would be granted.

But these were not normal times. The request did not even make it to the summit table and when leaders assembled a day later they went one step further and ripped up the compromise plan that had been carefully crafted by their own officials.

Having banished Mrs May to eat dinner alone, for six hours they argued over how tough to be.

President Macron of France and Charles Michel, the Belgian prime minister, took the hardest line, warning that nothing but a “miracle” could prevent Mrs May’s deal being defeated again.

Viktor Orban, the autocratic and proudly illiberal Hungarian prime minister, said that a no-deal was a real possibility because he had learnt from the experience of Margaret Thatcher that Tory leaders only cared about one thing: the Conservative Party.

In the end Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, brokered a compromise. Britain could have an extension until May 22 but only if parliament ratified the withdrawal agreement before the end of March 29.

If the deal failed to get through at the third time of asking then EU leaders set a three-week deadline for the UK to come up with an alternative proposal.

Although the meeting was long and fractious it did establish some clear principles for how the bloc intended to proceed.

In private, EU leaders decided that they would not allow themselves to end up the “villains” of the piece by precipitating a no-deal Brexit.

If Britain decided to walk off the cliff then fine, but EU leaders would not push them. Therefore when the attempt to force a decision out of Westminster failed on April 10 it was agreed to give Britain a further six months to get its house in order. “Use this time wisely,” Mr Tusk urged.

As one British journalist covering the summit quipped afterwards, it was nice to be in the presence of “adult politicians”.

Parliament takes control — but not a decision
If Brussels dictated the terms of the Brexit debate in the last week of March, it was parliament, rather than Mrs May, that seized control of it

In the next stage it was a revolutionary in the unlikely form of the Old Etonian Sir Oliver Letwin who took the lead.

The former cabinet fixer for David Cameron defied appeals for loyalty and headed an initiative with Labour support to give MPs control of the Commons agenda to find an alternative to Mrs May’s deal that could command majority support.

This could not have been done without the connivance of the Commons Speaker John Bercow who upended a long-standing convention that only the government of the day could control the parliamentary agenda.

It meant MPs were able to seize control of the Commons order paper and potentially dictate to the government the type of Brexit that would take place.

The trouble was that while they could all agree they didn’t want a no-deal Brexit, they couldn’t agree what they did want.

Soft Brexiteers refused to support a second referendum. Supporters of a second referendum refused to support a soft Brexit inside the custom union or single market.

In a series of votes MPs rejected every possible Brexit outcome other than asking the EU for more time.

Each side thought the winner would be the “last man standing”. They were all wrong.

Meanwhile Mrs May’s position was becoming increasingly untenable. The opponents within her own party had not been silenced by their miscalculated effort to oust her.

In one final attempt to get a version of a deal through she pledged to step down as party leader as soon as a withdrawal agreement was passed.

When this didn’t work she infuriated her own party by opening talks with Labour to see if a way could be found to deliver Brexit on a cross-party basis.

But with the prime minister refusing to countenance a second referendum - which was now Labour policy - the talks were pretty much doomed at the outset, as was Mrs May’s premiership. She finally announced she was stepping down on May 24.

A new broom
Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson enter the picture, joining forces for the first time since the Vote Leave campaign

In the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, Dominic Cummings, who headed the Vote Leave campaign, sent an email to supporters with an elliptical warning. “If we ever want to send up a signal that Westminster is cheating the vote and we need to form a new movement, you will see ‘the bat’,” he wrote.

Two and a half years later, on the day that Mrs May signed the EU withdrawal agreement, Mr Cummings posted an image of the Batman logo on Twitter below four words: “Please get in touch.’’ Then, out of the public gaze, he began working on a new strategy to secure Brexit.

He started rebuilding the networks of Vote Leave, held focus groups of swing voters and began testing messages for a Brexit election.

Four months later he predicted: “Beating them again and by more will be easier than 2016.”

At this stage Mr Cummings was working independently but he was in touch and providing informal advice to the two men who had been the public face of the Leave campaign and were in June slogging it out to replace Mrs May as leader.

When Mr Gove failed to make it into the final two and Mr Johnson emerged as the clear favourite he turned to Mr Cummings to drive through his “do or die” pledge to deliver Brexit.

It worked. Mr Johnson’s Brexiteer credentials helped him to see off Jeremy Hunt, who had remained loyal in Mrs May’s cabinet as health secretary, to win the Tory leadership. On July 24 2019 he became prime minister.

Mr Cummings told friends that he had made a series of “terrorist demands” of Mr Johnson to deliver Brexit before agreeing to enter Downing Street as his senior adviser.

And those demands were clear to see in the strategy pursued by Mr Johnson and largely devised by Mr Cummings, which was, to put it mildly, high stakes.

Mr Cummings knew that the chance of getting any sort of deal through the parliament they had inherited from Mrs May was nil.

So, he reasoned, if you couldn’t get a deal through parliament you had to change parliament itself.

The trouble was that Mr Johnson had already ruled out an early election during the leadership campaign so it had to be seen to be forced upon him.

On August 28 Mr Johnson struck. He announced that on September 9, a few days after MPs were due to return to Westminster after their summer holiday parliament would be prorogued (or suspended) until October 14, only two weeks before the October 31 Brexit deadline.

It was a deliberately provocative move that Mr Johnson’s many critics saw at the time as an attempt to push through a potential no-deal Brexit with parliament powerless to stop it.

But that wasn’t true. It was more Machiavellian than that. Mr Cummings calculated that the threat of prorogation would force MPs to use the few parliamentary sitting days available to them to again seize the order paper and rule out a no-deal Brexit while they had the chance. And so they did.

Mr Johnson also knew he would lose the vote, but that wasn’t the point.

He intended to make the vote one of confidence and then expel any Tory MP who voted against him.

Then having lost he intended to use it as an excuse to call for an election, one that Downing Street was certain Jeremy Corbyn would have to back.

Meanwhile he would be free to fight that election without the two dozen or so potential Tory rebels mainly in safe seats who were vehemently opposed to a potential no-deal Brexit.

It very nearly worked. The decision to prorogue caused the expected howls of anguish and Sir Oliver and Mr Bercow again played nursemaid to a bill that would force Mr Johnson to ask for another EU extension if no Brexit deal was agreed by October 31. Sir Oliver was expelled from the party, along with the former chancellor Philip Hammond and 19 other Tory MPs.

Mr Cummings miscalculated in one critical regard, however. Labour rightly saw it as a trap and declined to vote for Mr Johnson’s election. The prime minister was stuck. He had made little effort to get a deal with the EU. Now he could not leave without one. And he didn’t have the numbers to push through an election. Some in Downing Street openly talked about Mr Johnson being the shortest serving prime minister ever.

A historic betrayal
Now in power and faced with parliamentary gridlock Boris Johnson’s only way out was to agree a new Brexit deal with the European Union, but not everyone is pleased with the result

Back in 2018, Mr Johnson, who was then merely a Brexiteer backbencher, was invited to speak to the Democtatic Unionist Party conference in Northern Ireland.

To heartfelt applause he lambasted Mrs May’s Brexit deal and pledged that “no British government could or should” sign up to allowing a customs border to be put up between Britain and Northern Ireland.

But now in power and faced with parliamentary gridlock his only way out was to agree a new Brexit deal with the European Union. And the only way he was going to get that deal was to jettison the Tories’ DUP partners.

The betrayal came not in Brussels but at a country house hotel outside Liverpool until then most famous for hosting Coleen Rooney’s 21st birthday.

It was a location for a last-minute meeting between Mr Johnson and the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar. Alongside Mr Johnson was the cabinet secretary as well as David Frost, his chief Europe adviser, and Mr Cummings, who had even put on a suit for the occasion.

During one-to-one talks Mr Johnson made an offer to Mr Varadkar: the government would allow customs and regulatory checks in the Irish Sea if the EU agreed to allow the province to benefit from UK-wide free-trade deals and remain — in name at least — within the UK’s customs territory.

It was a far bigger concession than the Irish side had been expecting and was a long way from the much more modest proposals published by the government earlier that month.

Critically for Mr Johnson, given the circumstances he was in, it did pave the way to a deal. And that deal allowed Britain, if not Northern Ireland, to fulfil Tory Brexiteers’ vision of life outside the EU.

There remained only the problem of the DUP. Mr Johnson correctly calculated that Tory MPs would be prepared to throw their former DUP allies under the bus if it meant finally getting a deal and perfidious Albion struck again.

The final path to Brexit
It is one of the greater ironies of the entire Brexit process that it was the political party most opposed to Britain leaving the EU that played the most critical role in making sure that it finally happened

In late October Chuka Umunna, the former Labour MP who had defected to Change UK and then the Lib Dems, persuaded Jo Swinson, his new leader, to break with other opposition parties and give Mr Johnson the election he so desperately wanted.

Riding high in the polls and with Labour desperately split the Lib Dems calculated that an early poll was in their best interests.

They hoped to pick up Tory Remain seats and calculated that Boris Johnson could be denied an overall majority, allowing a new parliament to vote for a second referendum as they only way out of the impasse.

Labour were caught off guard by the move. The SNP could see advantages. In the end Jeremy Corbyn had no choice but to go along with the two smaller opposition parties for fear of looking weak. Mr Johnson had finally got his election.

End game
Three and a half years after the original referendum voters emphatically give Boris Johnson the mandate to deliver the result of it

Newcastle was again the omen, Sunderland further evidence while this time Bassetlaw and Stoke-on-Trent provided the proof.

Three and a half years after the original referendum on a cold, wet December day, voters emphatically gave Mr Johnson the mandate to deliver the result of it.

The UK will now leave the EU on January 31 with the deal agreed by Boris Johnson in October.

Things, of course, could have turned out very differently.

Had Mr Johnson, the architect of Vote Leave, become prime minister instead of a Remainer like Mrs May at the first time of asking, the entire political Brexit debate would have been different.

Had the government had a clearer strategy of what it wanted from the outset it could have avoided many of the pitfalls that left it conducting negotiations with the EU on terms far more favourable to Brussels than London.

Had Mrs May been a better campaigner or not called an election in the first place she could have got her softer Brexit deal through parliament.

And had the DUP appreciated the potential of the eventual Tory Brexiteer betrayal they too might have changed the course of history.

Perhaps most importantly, had all sides been prepared to compromise a bit more and not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the acceptable then perhaps Brexit would never have become the critically divisive social issue that it did.

But that is in the past. What is extraordinary in hindsight is how little we still know about what Brexit will mean for the future of the country.

We know the rights of EU citizens in the UK will be preserved. We know nothing will change for a year. And we know that Northern Ireland will tread a different path from the rest of the UK.

Beyond that pretty much everything about the future relationship with our closest neighbours is undecided and up for grabs.

Brexit is happening — and it has only just begun.