Bar chart of the mentions of “Brexit”, “European Union”, “EU”, “Europe” and “Brussels” by Prime Ministers, Chancellors and Foreign Ministers in their addresses at the Conservative Party Conference, 2016-20, showing the B word

Who will blink first when the EU-UK speaks near the danger zone?

It would always come to that, but the EU-UK trade negotiations are now entering the danger zone phase where we can find out who will wither under the pressure of an impending "non-negotiated" exit.

This week negotiators made another round of incremental progress, but nowhere near the main political deal that Boris Johnson announced at this week's EU leaders' summit.

Mr Johnson continues to make phone calls to EU leaders reminding them that Australian-style exit is "not afraid", even if a number of government ministers, officials, industry leaders and select commons commons are supported by the This would bring chaos and disruption listening to the problems.

For several weeks now, EU diplomats have been sketching – as the briefing last week reported – the scenario of slight progress up to this week's European Council, followed by intensive talks in the last two weeks of October with an agreement in early November.

That too looks ambitious now. The draft EU Council conclusions are shockingly anodyne; the diplomatic equivalent of a hard look. They reaffirm the EU's insistence that its top negotiator, Michel Barnier, stand by his mandate and urge him to “continue” (not even “step up”) negotiations in order to reach an agreement that will be effective from January 1, 2021 can apply.

In short, the traditional EU negotiating pressure is now open. The unspoken expectation in Brussels and EU capitals is that Mr Barnier's infamous ticking clock will keep ringing louder in the ears of UK negotiators until the noise becomes so unbearable that David Frost, his UK counterpart, and Mr Johnson die Admit most of the important sticking points.

At the moment the choreography of concessions seems to be blocked and Member States are urging Mr Barnier not to give up leverage (especially on fish) as the room for a deal is narrowing. EU officials complain that the UK "doesn't look like a counterpart wanting a deal" – UK officials who maintain the EU's status quo on fishing rights say exactly the same thing. For now, at least, the record seems to be stuck.

As in October 2019, the EU will do its best to help Mr Johnson sell them home if concessions are made on the tough open issues – fishing rights, a level playing field and the governance of the deal – but they expect that the British do this most run.

Time will tell if this is a huge misconception on the part of the EU, but the more closely they examine Mr Johnson's policy options as Covid-19 approaches again, the more certain they will be that it will ultimately give much of the soil sought .

Some Brexiters will feel that Mr Johnson has learned the lessons from his predecessor's failed negotiations by threatening to leave and by getting Brussels to step back on some key areas – particularly on dynamic alignment with EU policies for state aid.

However, this approach has only worked up to a point (the EU has always had to use state aid), which begs the question of whether Mr Johnson should actually walk away if only to try to break the stalemate. The assumption is that he won't.

But if Mr Johnson stays at the table, he risks slowly being drawn into an increasingly insidious choice between a very meager trade deal – which will likely end up with the offer of some nice reliefs – and a destructive no deal.

Alternatively, both sides continue the gap and the entire process simply goes to failure. The risks for this are, in my opinion, higher than generally assumed. Politically and psychologically there are limits to what Mr. Johnson can admit.

All of this was made more difficult by Mr Johnson's decision to legally override parts of the take-back agreement with the internal market accounts. The move was supposed to get the negotiations moving, but only complicated them on three fronts.

First, if the intention was to force an EU strike or to force the EU to withdraw, it would fail. Brussels didn't pull the bait, instead opening a lengthy court case that didn't end the talks while making it clear that any deal between the UK and the EU would depend on the UK dropping the offensive clauses.

In fact, Mr Johnson, who thought he had "put a gun on the table", now finds a reference to him: "Drop the gun, Prime Minister, or there will be no deal."

Second, by making such a spectacular show of malice against last year's deal, Mr Johnson has strengthened arguments on the EU side (especially from the French) for a very strict governance mechanism for an agreement.

Even if Brussels is playing its hand on this front in view of the thinness of the market access offer, the internal market accounts have given him the perfect excuse for it. In an attempt to protect the unity of the 27, the EU is withdrawing to a negotiating position with the highest common denominator.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the promise to unilaterally rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol in the event of a no-deal makes it nearly impossible to see how Mr Johnson could ever develop a soft-no-deal.

Because of this step, a no-deal result will now be politically much more destructive than would otherwise be necessary. I understand that the Whitehall Assumption is that it will take two years for basic free trade negotiations to resume.

If Mr Johnson really wants to take the plunge off the no-deal cliff, he's only increased the decline significantly.

This week, a defiant UK government source accused the EU of "using the old game book" for wrongly running the clock, the source said that "the longer the process went on the UK would be more willing to compromise ".

From the outside it looks like that is exactly what the EU believes. In the not too distant future we'll find out if it's right.

Brexit in numbers

Another reason often given in Westminster as to why Mr Johnson ultimately has to make a deal with the EU is that the public already believes that their vote for the Conservatives last December was a vote for Brexit. And it's already done.

In number 10, there are fears that the distinction between entering into the divorce deal and not entering into a free trade agreement would be lost for the vast majority of voters if the Covid-19 crisis were confirmed again. It would just look like it wasn't delivering.

A fine example of how Brexit has receded into the political background was to be found at the Tory party conference, where the “B word” (measured by two professors in Great Britain in a think tank for European change) was hardly spoken .

"Although this is not completely banned – the Prime Minister has said the B-word four times this year – the discussion about Brexit and the EU from the conference room has fallen by an astonishing 89 percent in one year," they wrote.

Just one more reason to support Brussels’s calculation that Mr Johnson will not dare put Brexit back on the already overcrowded political agenda by allowing talks to fail.