The carefully staged photo of Boris Johnson’s Saturday phone call to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European commission, showed him gesturing forcefully into the ether in the moody half-light – keeping negotiations alive to the last.
But at some point over the next 48 hours, perhaps less, the talking will have to stop. The British prime minister must then make the momentous decision about whether to walk away: and even the most dedicated Brexit-watchers are reluctant to call it.
“Half the politics points towards a deal, half the politics doesn’t,” says Anand Menon, director of the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe.
In the short term, signing on the dotted line would allow Johnson to make good on his promise to the British people to “get Brexit done”, closing down the space for Keir Starmer’s Labour party to attack him for failing on his own terms.
It could also expose Labour’s divisions, as has already been the case in recent days, with Starmer minded to support a deal, but a growing number of backbenchers deeply uncomfortable with the idea of joining the Tories in the voting lobbies.
And with 2021 set to be a significant year for Britain’s role on the world stage – chairing the G7, hosting the Cop26 climate summit – a deal would help to wipe the slate clean, rather than saddling the UK with a reputation as an unreliable negotiating partner.
The additional economic cost of a no-deal Brexit, moreover, is huge, according to the independent Office for Budget Responsibility – knocking an additional 2% off GDP in 2021 as the UK struggles to bounce back from the Covid recession, and adding £12bn to public borrowing in 2021-22, at a time when the Treasury is already grappling with the costs of the pandemic.
Yet the most committed Brexiters, chary of economic models, have rarely been swayed by a few percentage points either way, believing something more fundamental is at stake.
And the next few weeks promise significant disruption, deal or no deal, as traders and travellers adapt to a dramatically different relationship with our neighbours. Ministers may fear being more squarely landed with the consequences if they have claimed negotiating success.
Johnson will also be acutely conscious of the risk that his erstwhile supporters cry betrayal, at a time when the Tory parliamentary party is already restive about the missteps that have plagued his handling of the pandemic.
His leadership launch in the plush surroundings of Carlton House Terrace, Westminster, in June 2019 was bristling with Spartans, as the die-hard Brexiters called themselves – and their backing helped to carry him into No 10.
With key figures such as Suella Braverman and Jacob Rees-Mogg in his cabinet, the European Research Group (ERG) has been relatively quiescent during Johnson’s premiership.
Covid restrictions, rather than fish quotas, have been the biggest flashpoint for backbench dissent; and the ERG has been kept well-briefed on developments in the talks.
But Downing Street can be in no doubt that if the details of the deal appeared to point to continuing alignment with EU rules, Johnson would face a furious backlash from his erstwhile supporters.
They would be unlikely to muster the 55 votes necessary to trigger a leadership challenge; but many of Johnson’s staunchest backers have already deserted him, and a well-drilled group of malcontents could make his premiership very difficult, just as he hoped to be emerging from the long, lost year of Covid. “Just how rough the ERG would cut up is a big issue,” said Menon.
Westminster-watchers would also be keeping a keen eye on Dominic Cummings’ blog, for signs that Johnson’s former chief aide had spotted evidence of a sellout.
Ultimately, though, the question will be whether the details of the final deal can be squared with Johnson’s own conception of sovereignty.
He is notoriously flexible in his political beliefs; but allies insist the idea that the UK must be allowed to diverge from the EU in a range of areas, from animal welfare to labour standards, is the essence of what Brexit means to him.
His chief negotiator, Lord Frost, was chosen because he understands and shares that view.
Which way Johnson jumps will depend on the fine details – of how the UK will pledge to police its own state aid regime, what recourse the EU will have if the UK diverges in key areas, and how disputes will be resolved, as well as what share of each others’ fish stocks they can land.
But with the European council gathering on Thursday, the decision cannot be postponed much longer.
As Mujtaba Rahman, of the consultancy Eurasia Group, put it: “There’s a lot of damage and pain that the UK’s experienced as a result of Brexit, and the only tangible benefit as far as he is concerned is the ability to do things differently. He’s grappled with that issue and thought about it for the past four years. The only question is, what price is he willing to pay to achieve that?”