When the EU’s suave chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned last week that he could hear the clock ticking down on Britain’s time to secure a comprehensive trade deal, his deliberately anxiety-inducing imagery played into a fear growing in the minds of many in Whitehall, the government and Brussels.
The concern gripping some involved in the saga of Britain’s extrication from the bloc is that a mixture of political indecision, a lack of leadership and a Whitehall machine struggling with the size of the task, will lead to the UK stumbling out of the club on bad terms, almost by accident.
After a week of posturing on both sides, Monday will see the second round of talks between Barnier and David Davis. Yet more than a year since Britain voted to leave, ministerial, official and Brussels sources told the Observer that the UK urgently needs to produce clarity on its demands in order to dodge a Brexit calamity.The current timetable envisages that Brexit will happen at 12 midnight on 29-30 March 2019, a mere 20 months ahead.
The UK government is in a state of utter unpreparedness. Its leading ministers are unable to agree on what terms they should be seeking, so there is no plan for the negotiations with the EU. Even if they knew what they wanted, they might not be able to secure parliamentary approval for any such plan. And even that pre-supposes that the EU might be prepared to accept whatever our government proposed.
As for the negotiations with the EU beginning again on Monday, it is hard to see any progress being made on the three initial issues under consideration - the rights of EU residents in the UK, the divorce bill and the Northern Ireland border.
So what happens next. Well, nothing actually. Parliament goes into recess after this week and will not resume until 5 September. Ministers and MPs will be off on holiday and, when they come back, their minds will be focused on party conferences.
Yes, it's a bit of a mess alright.