IT is increasingly difficult to forget that Boris Johnson was talking about being in possession of an oven-ready, post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union last autumn.

And it surely rankles that this is what voters were told ahead of last December’s election, given subsequent events have not chimed at all with last autumn’s seemingly categorical assurance.

The burning question more than a year later is whether or not the UK can secure an 11th-hour trade deal to mitigate to a small extent the inevitably huge Brexit damage. Or will its goose be well and truly cooked on the Brexit front come December 31?

There is sadly not much left on the timer until the December 31 end of the transition period – a little more than seven weeks. And any deal would have to be ratified by both the UK and EU sides before this deadline.

Mr Johnson and his Government had the chance to reset the timer by extending the transition period by the July 1 deadline for this but they chose not to, in spite of an olive branch extended by the EU and all the misery and economic woe arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

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Of course, it will not be Cabinet members who will bear the brunt if the UK’s goose is cooked on the Brexit front. It will be businesses and households. You would imagine that many Cabinet members might be tucking into their Christmas dinners with a warm feeling of satisfaction that they have got their ideological Brexit “done”, while millions of UK citizens look ahead to 2021 with trepidation.

It is a messy and entirely unnecessary situation, entirely of the Conservative Brexiters’ own making.

Ahead of yet another crucial week of talks between the UK and EU, we had the warning that “large differences” remain. This assessment followed a call between Mr Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday. The warning came from Ms von der Leyen, via Twitter, after the meeting, but was echoed by Downing Street, which talked about “significant differences”.

The lack of agreement has seemed to be one of the very few things the two sides have been able to come up with a common line on in recent times.

All the while, the UK Government continues with its advertising campaign to tell businesses to prepare. Of course, businesses and households still do not know the precise nature of the shambles for which they are preparing. The message has been to prepare for all eventualities, including a no-deal departure. However, that is hardly helpful at all at this late stage to businesses, or households for that matter, already struggling to cope amid the awful coronavirus crisis.

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There was understandably much focus last week and over the weekend on the US presidential election result. And, from a UK perspective, there was much speculation about and reflection on what Joe Biden’s victory might mean for the trade deal Britain has been pursuing with Donald Trump.

The political styles of Mr Johnson and President Trump have appeared, from an external perspective, to be remarkably similar. They have appeared to be two peas in a pod, when it has come to big populist talk.

Mr Biden’s considered style is clearly very different. And, getting to specifics, he is no fan of Brexit.

As the UK negotiations with the EU have run into difficulty, Mr Biden has made no bones about the importance to him of nothing happening which jeopardises the peace and stability in Northern Ireland enabled by the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Biden tweeted in September: “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

These comments followed the Conservative Government’s decision to bring forward legislation through the internal market bill which could override key elements of the withdrawal agreement signed with the EU, crucially the Northern Ireland protocol. This protocol was formulated painstakingly to avoid the re-emergence of a hard border on the island of Ireland. It creates a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland, to avoid checks and controls on the island, will be required to apply EU customs rules and align with a list of single-market regulations.

The internal market bill cleared its first hurdle in the House of Commons in September, in spite of concerns over a breach of international law in the context of the withdrawal agreement.

Mr Johnson suffered a heavy defeat on Monday night in the House of Lords, as peers voted by a huge majority to remove the contentious clauses which could enable Government ministers to breach international law. However, the Conservative Government has pledged to reinsert the clauses.

Of course, what is clear in any case is that the UK on its own, rather than as part of the EU, will be a less influential ally for the US. American companies, like those in other countries outside Europe, have been keen in recent decades to set up in the UK to gain access to the huge European single market, the world’s largest free trade bloc. And, from a US perspective, the UK Government, before Brexit, had a position of influence within the powerful EU bloc.

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After her phone call with Mr Johnson on Saturday on the state of negotiations between the UK and the EU on their future relationship, Ms von der Leyen tweeted: “We took stock of the negotiations with UK Prime Minister @BorisJohnson today. Some progress has been made, but large differences remain especially on level playing field and fisheries. Our teams will continue working hard next week. We will remain in close contact in the next days.”

The Prime Minister’s Office meanwhile issued the following statement on Saturday: “Boris Johnson today spoke with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for a stock take on the progress in the negotiations between the UK and the EU.

“The Prime Minister set out that, while some progress had been made in recent discussions, significant differences remain in a number of areas, including the so-called level playing field and fish. The Prime Minister and President agreed that their negotiating teams would continue talks in London next week, beginning on Monday, in order to redouble efforts to reach a deal. They agreed to remain in personal contact about the negotiations.”

At least the word “redouble” was used, rather than that irritating “double down” phrase sometimes favoured by Mr Johnson.

Beyond that aside, there was not much to be cheerful about in that statement, or in the tweet from Ms von der Leyen.

The UK is, at this late stage, only trying to secure a relatively narrow Canada-style trade agreement. It is not clear how hard it is trying. And such a deal would not in any case go that far towards mitigating the huge damage to the country’s economy from the loss of truly frictionless trade with the bloc and the end of free movement of people between the UK and EU countries. That said, it would be a lot better than a no-deal exit from the world’s biggest free trade bloc.

Remember that, while the Leavers got their technical Brexit on January 31, nothing changed at that point. The actual effects of Brexit will crystallise on December 31. That said, it is important to emphasise the cost of this whole folly to the UK economy has already been huge because the impending effects of Brexit and the great uncertainty created by the fiasco were weighing on growth for years, before the coronavirus pandemic emerged. Among the things which have dragged down the economy has been a sharp decline in net immigration to the UK from other EU countries. There have also been decisions by companies to move operations elsewhere because of Brexit, delay investment, and so on.

There has been some talk that the UK and EU have narrowed their differences on fisheries, an issue embraced by arch-Brexiters with real British nationalist fervour. Who knows?

The fair competition issue, which takes in food and other product standards and state aid, continues to look like a difficult one to resolve, as the UK keeps banging on about sovereignty which was never in doubt in any case when it was a member of the EU.

Polling by the Institute of Directors in Scotland, at its first-ever virtual annual summit last Friday, revealed the huge degree to which businesses crave some sort of certainty around what Brexit will mean.

The polling showed only 30.3% of business leaders in Scotland view themselves as “very prepared” for Brexit. Meanwhile, 62.1% of 66 respondents said they were “somewhat prepared”. And 7.6% consider themselves “not prepared at all”.

Asked what kind of support they would benefit most from in preparing for Brexit, 39.1% of 64 respondents said clearer guidance from government and 28.1% cited the need for “a clear outline on how supply chains will operate post-Brexit”. Meanwhile, 21.9% said financial support packages, and 10.9% flagged the need for “advice and guidance around continued employment of EU citizens”.

These are big issues. Businesses should expect clarity from the UK Government, which after all was elected largely on a Brexit ticket, on what on earth this odyssey will actually mean for them.

Sadly but probably predictably, as that timer ticks down, this Conservative Government does not seem to have any answers itself yet as it appears alarmingly focused on ideology to the detriment of its citizens’ living standards.