THE days tick away, not only towards Christmas, but to an altogether more urgent deadline.
Today marks 500 days until March 29, 2019, the day that Britain leaves the EU, and that date is racing towards us at frightening speed while the Government’s preparations for it proceed at a snail’s pace.
And the most pressing question posed by this milestone on the tortuous road to Brexit is whether the Government can survive for those 500 days.
As it stumbles from crisis to crisis without a coherent plan for Brexit, nobody in their right mind would bet on it lasting until 2019.
Certainly not the leaders of other EU countries, who are reported to be making contingency plans for the fall of the Government and the possibility of a general election throwing the whole Brexit process into even more turmoil.
Probably not even Theresa May, despite her bullish words last week on delivering Brexit and enshrining the departure date in law in a Parliamentary process which is due to begin today.
Whether she admits it to herself or not, Mrs May is marooned in a political minefield without a map, at risk of blowing up her premiership whichever way she steps. At a time when certainty, clear direction and firm leadership are needed, there is none.
How pressing is the need for clarity over Brexit was underlined last month by an open letter from Britain’s leading business organisations. The CBI, Institute of Directors, British Chambers of Commerce, Federation of Small Businesses and manufacturers’ body EEF all urged a transition period for the sake of stability and jobs.
That should have been a loud wake-up calls for the Government. These are not partisan lobbyists trying to shout down opposing viewpoints, but the bodies representing the employers of millions of workers which seek to keep them in jobs.
Such authoritative voices should have been listened to. But there is no evidence that happened. Instead, as the days tick away towards Brexit, there is only paralysis within the Government aggravated by what can only be seen as a kind of political death wish within certain factions, seemingly more intent on moulding the Conservatives in their own image than remaining in power.
The difficulties the Government faces can hardly be exaggerated. Firstly, there is the instability caused by losing two Cabinet Ministers in a week.
The departure of former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon gave notice that the sexual sleaze scandal gripping Westminster could yet claim more scalps, potentially leading to by-elections that could topple the Government.
But the resignation of the International Development Secretary Priti Patel, for her outrageous pursuit of what amounted to a private foreign policy agenda, could cause Mrs May even greater problems.
As if she did not have enough enemies on her own benches, now they have been joined by a charismatic and ambitious figure with a grudge, around which resentment can coalesce.
Then there is the enemy within – Boris Johnson, the loose cannon in the Cabinet who must fancy his chances of becoming the next Tory leader and possibly Prime Minister more than ever as Mrs May’s difficulties mount and her authority shrivels yet further.
As she contemplates the countdown towards Brexit – and her own inevitable downfall, whenever it comes – it may occur to the Prime Minister that there is a near-total absence of bright spots on the horizon.
Instead, only pitfalls lie ahead. Next week’s Budget will be tricky anyway against a worsening economic backdrop, and brings with it the likelihood of sparking off more infighting between Government factions because Chancellor Philip Hammond is reviled by those advocating a hard Brexit.
And all this before the Government is dragged reluctantly into publishing its position papers on Brexit, which could possibly reveal gloomy predictions on the economic consequences.
If that is the case, it will only serve to redouble business concerns.
Desperate though the Government’s position is, the alternative is hardly better. If it falls, whether because of sleaze or internal divisions, there is every possibility that Labour could win a general election.
Given that its position on Brexit is no more coherent than the Conservatives, there is little to be optimistic about in that, and an administration driven by hard-left ideology would be the despair of businesses.
The likelihood of a major breakthrough in negotiations with the EU appears remote, given the continuing deadlock about Britain’s “divorce bill” and the ultimatum issued on Friday that it must be settled within two weeks.
A winter of discontent looms for the Prime Minister and the Government. Whether either survive it is questionable, but while they fight amongst themselves, it leaves the country counting down the days towards the unknown and wondering what on Earth lies at their end.