The clock is ticking - again

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Media captionBarnier: It's time for UK to make a choice

Michel Barnier's comments might have sounded like an elegant aside, delivered in a Downing Street salon in a French accent.

But they were still a warning to the UK, to the prime minister, the Brexit secretary and his cabinet colleagues that the UK has to decide what it really wants from its future relationship with the EU.

It is far from the first time that he has referred to impending deadlines - one of his favourite phrases seems to be "the clock is ticking" - but whether you are the greatest enthusiast out there for Brexit, or worried about impending potential consequences, this time the Barnier warning does relate to a very specific timeline - which does make this an important week.

Tomorrow the prime minister's top EU official, Olly Robbins, will travel to Brussels, the first visit of two this week, to discuss how to crack on with the talks with his opposite numbers. It seems he'll try to give the other side a picture of where the UK is heading before the crucial cabinet committee meetings on Wednesday and Thursday.

Those meetings aren't designed to be the final decision-making hours on the final shape of our future relationship with the EU. But the point is to try to get the cabinet to agree an overall pitch.

As negotiators get into the second phase, what is the UK's overall broad approach - is it to start with a model like the Canadian free trade deal, and add on elements as they see fit?

Or is it to start with the presumption of a much closer relationship and chuck out bits one by one that the government doesn't like?

You would be right in thinking that this debate has been going on for a LONG time. It's been raging since the referendum, and it is the fundamental dividing line in the Tory party right now, after decades of divisions and grudges over our relationship with the Europeans.

Think it's extraordinary that the cabinet hasn't really come down on this one way or the other after all this time?

The prime minister's desire to have a "bespoke" arrangement has been her holding position. And frankly, waiting until the last minute to come down in favour of one thing or another has been part of her survival technique. If she had forced it much earlier, she could have risked cabinet strops (yes even more) or even walkouts.

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But there is hope that on Wednesday and Thursday the cabinet can be coaxed to come to some kind of consensus about whether, broadly, they are going into the next phase of the talks coming from the standpoint of ministers like the chancellor, who favour binding ties for good, or Boris Johnson, who is arguing for a freer approach.

Then on Friday, Olly Robbins will be back on the Eurostar to sit down with the EU's negotiators again, in theory, with a plan based on the cabinet's discussions.

If he can, then the second phase of the talks can truly start in earnest, and Mr Barnier's warning will perhaps have finally been heeded. I'm told that this Friday will be the first time the EU has been given an official update on the government's position since the fraught days of the end of phase one in December.

Given though that the EU negotiator has given such warnings before, does it really matter if the timetable goes awry? The prime minister has tried to shrug off the sense that this is somehow decision time.

Technically however there is a time pressure. In March the European Council is publishing guidelines about the framework for the future relationship. In other words, there is meant to be an agreed broad approach to the negotiations in less than eight weeks.

Call for clarity

If the UK hasn't given much information about what it wants to achieve, how, the thinking goes, can the process be designed?

Again, it is fair to say on the government side, that's miles away from the final details of the deal. But away from the demands at Westminster or Brussels, businesses around the country are keen to have clarity.

And on both sides of the talks, privately officials say that if the UK doesn't come forward this time, the reality could be that the EU ends up starting to put the agreement together. Essentially, because of the time constraints, if the UK isn't willing to start sketching out the agreements, the EU will pick up the pen.

One senior EU source said "the more clarity the UK can provide on how it sees its future relationship, the more productive the EU Council can be in pushing these negotiations forward".

In other words, if you don't make your minds up, well, March could still be vague, leaving only seven months until October when the heads of terms of the deal are meant to be done. A vague deal leaves uncertainty open for another long few months, and pushes into another financial year.

One Tory peer, Lord Bridges, who was recently a member of the Brexit department itself, warned that if ministers didn't make up their mind about what it wanted soon it was headed for a deal that was "meaningless waffle", leaving the UK at a disadvantage - the EU with the whip hand in the talks.

There are good political reasons why it has taken this long. The prime minister has given carefully-choreographed big speeches that have set out her overarching principles at Lancaster House and in Florence. Both required huge political efforts to get them through her party.

But the self-set deadline of the Article 50 talks and the discipline of the Brexit process means there is not much room for further delay.