'If you want to keep secret Brexit talks under wraps, don't dress the gardener in a suit'

'If you want to keep secret Brexit talks under wraps, don't dress the gardener in a suit'
Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor Hotel. Picture: Leo Varadkar/PA Wire

If you want to keep secret Brexit talks under wraps, don't dress the gardener in a suit, says Elaine Loughlin.

Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar had hoped and indeed tried their best to keep the time and location of their confidential meeting out of the public domain.

In hindsight, they might have thought better of choosing the same venue as fellow headline-grabber Coleen Rooney had picked to celebrate her 21st birthday.

Armed with only a tip-off and a few hunches as navigational tools, a group of Irish journalists, this one included, bundled themselves into a taxi in Liverpool and headed across the Mersey river into the Wirral countryside.

There was word that the hush-hush crunch meeting would be held in Thornton Haugh, a chocolate-box English village of brick houses centred around a cricket green, which of course, given its location, was also kitted out with soccer goals.

"This is where you bring your mistress, the footballers come here with their birds," our taximan Lee authoritatively declared in his strong Scouser accent agreeing that the area would be the ideal location for two political leaders to slip in and out of under the radar.

The dark gates of the imposing Thornton Manor were firmly shut when the taxi pulled up.

But three sets of feet could be seen underneath the black and white Tudor-style gatehouse.

The smartly dressed females pleaded blissful ignorance of any potential VIP guest appearances when asked.

“No sorry, no one due here today,” one said, putting in a sterling acting effort as they all looked at each other with puzzled expressions.

The gaggle of less than 10 journalists and photographers lingered outside the closed gates for a few moments.

“You can’t stand here, this is private property."

Another man had emerged from inside the black gate to give the orders - for a place where nothing was about to happen there seemed to be an awful lot activity.

"On the footpath, we are not allowed stand on the public footpath?" one of the hacks piped up.

"You can't stand here," came the firm response from the mystery man in a black suit, shirt and tie who later claimed he was the gardener.

This only gave the journalists a chance to get in on the horticultural act.

Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor Hotel. Picture: Leo Varadkar/PA Wire
Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor Hotel. Picture: Leo Varadkar/PA Wire

"Are you perhaps expecting a delivery of some shrubs soon?"

“Might be, but I need you to move across the road," replied the secret gardener.

Paranoia set in as the Irish pack hung about on the grass verge, wondering where their UK counterparts were.

It was collectively decided that good a chuck of the British media were probably more focused on another sprawling mansion around 20 minutes up the road - the Rooney residence, where leaks were also the story of the day.

In fact Leo and Boris could do with someone like Coleen on both of their teams to deal with the slew of anonymous Brexit briefings that have been seeping out in recent days.

The secret summit was confirmed when Mr Johnson arrived at the property at 11.44am with a large cavalcade.

Like a rude guest, the Taoiseach, who had flown into Liverpool's John Lennon Airport, made the prime minister wait for 22 minutes before his smaller convoy entered the property.

Mystery solved. Now it was over to both men to fix the Brexit dilemma.

Picture: Leo Varadkar on Twitter
Picture: Leo Varadkar on Twitter

It is not known whether the politicians were aware that the venue is a favoured haunt of football royalty or whether Boris knew that the constituency of Wirral South where Thornton Manor is situated voted 53.45% to remain.

But these omens were bound to be seen as a positive.

After three hours of talks and a stroll around the formal gardens, the mood was upbeat.

In a joint statement, both men said they can both now see a "pathway" to a Brexit deal.

"Their discussions concentrated on the challenges of customs and consent.

"They also discussed the potential to strengthen bilateral relations, including on Northern Ireland.

"They agreed to reflect further on their discussions and that officials would continue to engage intensively on them."

But the leader-hunt had started long before the taxi ride this morning.

Newsrooms in Dublin went into a tizzy when at 4.59pm on Wednesday an official notice went out stating the Taoiseach and his British counterpart would meet the following day to discuss Brexit and the process for securing an agreement.

All other details were closely guarded with only the "north-west of England" being given as a location.

Flights hastily booked, there then followed many hours of trying to coax, cajole and frankly harass further details out of Leo Varadkar's side.

The Taoiseach's advisers insisted all information was being kept secret at the request of 10 Downing Street.

Hours before the kick-off time and the back and forth was continuing until the Varadkar side - still unwilling to reveal where the meeting would happen - relented and agreed to a short press conference in the airport afterwards.

A small victory for the Brexit-weary reporters after their Merseyside wild goose chase.

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