Britain's efforts to leave the European Union are in trouble. At the press conference on 31 August after the third round of talks, Michel Barnier evinced his frustration.
The tiresome cheeriness of Brexit minister David Davis cannot disguise his own slender grasp of detail or the lack of Conservative cabinet cohesion on the overall Brexit strategy.
He is reduced to repeating his call for more flexibility and imagination. Growing distrust between the Barnier and Davis negotiators means it is unlikely that the European Council in October will be able to take the decision that "sufficient progress" has been made in the first phase of the negotiations in order to allow a move to phase two.
Without such a change of gear, the British will be unable to get the EU27 to talk about the transition period to bridge the gap between Brexit and the entry into force of a new UK-EU association agreement, which Theresa May describes hopefully as "a deep and special partnership".
There is no point in London trying to divide the EU27. Contrary to British claims made in bilateral discussions in other EU capitals, the Brussels Article 50 team is not broken, Barnier commands solid support within the Commission, Council and Parliament, and the European Council guidelines of 29 April still apply in full.
There are three topics in the first phase of the Article 50 talks. Progress must be made on all three before the heads of government will agree to talk about the transition, let alone the long term.
"The tiresome cheeriness of Brexit minister David Davis cannot disguise his own slender grasp of detail or the lack of Conservative cabinet cohesion on the overall Brexit strategy"
As the Article 50 negotiations falter in Brussels, the Westminster parliament begins its deliberation on the vast, complicated and controversial Repeal Bill. The purpose of this law is to replicate the entire content of the EU acquis in UK law – with the regrettable exception of the Charter of Fundamental Rights – and then to retain, amend or annul such law.
As much of what has to be done, including the replacement of EU regulatory bodies by new British public authorities, will not be known in detail until the Article 50 treaty is concluded, the government has reserved for itself unprecedentedly wide executive powers to expedite Brexit.
It is possible that opposition forces in the Commons and Lords will combine to modify the government's stance at the Article 50 talks. A few pro-European MPs and peers even want to wreck the Bill and stymie Brexit altogether; other (more numerous) anti-European MPs would prefer a hard Brexit to the accommodation implicit in signing up to an Article 50 withdrawal agreement.
Further uncertainty will arise as the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make their bid to take over powers once executed by the Commission, for instance in agriculture and fisheries.
But the Remainers have one big problem: if by hook or by crook they destroy the current Article 50 process there will be no second chance. The EU is preparing to leave the UK behind at midnight on 29 March 2019.
In the absence of an Article 50 treaty there will be no looking back.
One has learned over the years not to anticipate without trepidation British prime ministerial speeches on Europe. Theresa May's speech in the run-up to her party conference – possibly on 21 September and, we are told, 'in Europe' – is of more than usual importance. First of all, she would be wise to tone down her rhetoric: her party's braggadocio may be symptomatic of Brexit, but it is not seemly. Withdrawal is, after all, a retreat.
"Another display of tactical incompetence, snared by delusion, will assuredly ruin Britain and cause deep collateral damage to the rest of Europe"
May could reassure us as to the capacity of the apparatus of the British state actually to deliver Brexit. She should tell us what kind of a European country she hopes Britain eventually to be. She must shed light on the nature of the transition period, its financing and governance, and locate clearly the UK's future landing zone.
In how it moves the Tory party, the speech will make or break her leadership. How it is received in Brussels will inform the decision of the European Council on 19-20 October about whether to move to the next phase of the Article 50 negotiations.
The prime minister's self-appointed task is to expedite Brexit. A display on her behalf of real pragmatism, flexibility and imagination will point the way towards an orderly departure and a serious association agreement beyond. Conversely, another display of tactical incompetence, snared by delusion, will assuredly ruin Britain and cause deep collateral damage to the rest of Europe.