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At 7 a.m. on Sunday, Boris Johnson pulled on his swimming trunks and stepped into the Atlantic, striking out for a rock off the beach in Biarritz, accompanied by what he described as “special detachments of swimming police.”
Preparing for talks with Group of Seven leaders, the U.K. prime minister was thinking, like most days, about his apparently intractable differences with the European Union over Brexit.
Out in the ocean, the prime minister found reasons for optimism.
"I swam round that rock this morning,’’ he told ITV. "From here you cannot tell there is a gigantic hole in that rock. There is a way through. My point to the EU is that there is a way through, but you can’t find the way through if you just sit on the beach."
While Brexit remains another rock on the not-so distant horizon, the prime minister appeared to have gone down well with his G-7 counterparts.
He found a broad range of international issues he could agree on with his main Brexit antagonist, European Council President Donald Tusk, reinforced his bond with U.S. President Donald Trump, and made French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife laugh -- in a good way.
Breakfast With Trump
Just over an hour after his swim, Johnson was tucking into veal sausages, croissants and mixed fruit opposite Trump. Each man had eight officials in tow as they sat down for a working breakfast to discuss security, Iran and one of the great prizes of Brexit for Johnson: the prospect of a trade deal with the U.S.
“This is a person that’s going to be a great prime minister in my opinion,” Trump told reporters. “He needs no advice, he’s the right man for the job. I’ve been saying that for a long time.” A day later, he told a packed press conference "it’s the right time for Boris."
There was also a promise from Trump of a “very big trade deal” once the U.K. has shed the “anchor” of EU membership. Johnson later told broadcasters that the U.S. wants to do the deal in a year -- a potential timeframe also endorsed for a U.K.-Australia trade deal by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Mindful of domestic criticism that he’s in Trump’s pocket, Johnson also tried to show he’ll stand up to the U.S. president. He told Trump the National Health Service and animal welfare standards were out of bounds in trade talks and urged the president to open up U.S. markets to British meats and shipping companies. There was also a dig at the the escalating trade war between the U.S. and China, as he called on the two nations to “dial it down a beat.”
Joking Before Dinner
At a European coordination meeting later in the day, he joined in with Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in laughing as European Council President Donald Tusk pointed at the EU flag and cracked a joke that elicited the response “no no no” from the U.K. premier.
On his arrival at Sunday’s formal dinner, he headed off in the wrong direction before suddenly pivoting and pointing his fingers at Macron and his wife as they waited to greet him. The French first couple’s faces creased with laughter.
If the Trump meeting was the most anticipated of the summit, the one most likely to cause sparks was his bilateral with Tusk on Sunday afternoon. Before the summit, Tusk said Johnson risked going down in history as “Mr. No Deal.” Johnson had retorted that that’s what Tusk would be known as if the EU didn’t offer concessions on Brexit.
But both U.K. and EU officials characterized Johnson’s meeting with Tusk as positive, the international agenda offering a counterpoint to the Brexit discussion.
"So far in this G-7 I think it would be fair to say, Donald, you and I have spent most of the conversations in completely glutinous agreement on most of the issues that have been raised,” Johnson told Tusk.
Donald Tusk replied: "I couldn’t agree more."
An EU official later said Johnson was constructive and aligned with the Europeans on issues like Iran, China, trade, Russia. A German official agreed with that sentiment.
On his return to London, it’s back to the Brexit grind with rival political forces gathering to block a no-deal Brexit. Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will host a cross-party meeting to discuss options in his office at 11 a.m. Later on Tuesday, some opposition lawmakers will meet to discuss ways to stop Johnson from suspending parliament.
Johnson is sounding a little less upbeat about the chances of getting Brexit done and dusted by Oct. 31: “I think it’s going to be touch and go.”
On Monday morning, Johnson went back to the ocean to test his theory -- and this time he swam through the gap in the rocks.
(Updates with comments from Trump, Morrison, Johnson, starting in eighth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Arne Delfs, Ian Wishart, Josh Wingrove, Helene Fouquet and Jennifer Jacobs.
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