As she ended her speech in Birmingham, May fired the starting gun on a fortnight of intense and potentially historic negotiations between the EU and the UK which could rupture or repair deteriorated relations.
While the expectation of a breakthrough on Brexit have been lowered, all sides, particularly Brussels and Dublin, have been waiting for the Tory party conference to end before the real work of hammering out a deal begins behind closed doors.
All parties are braced for a frantic fortnight, with senior sources on the Brussels side saying: “We are ready for this. The British are ready. Everyone is ready. All sides are up for a deal, but we need this to happen behind closed doors with an end to the leaks.”
There are 15 days to go before the crunch EU summit on 18 October, the original deadline for the Brexit deal.
Thursday 4 October
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is due to meet the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar. The EU’s new version of the backstop, which will be “substantially different” to the proposal in March to keep Northern Ireland in the single market and customs union, will be the focus. This is widely expected to include regulatory and customs checks away from the border.
Friday 5 October
Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, will meet Barnier along with leaders of the region’s other parties: the Alliance party, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Greens.
Friday 5 October or Monday 7 October
The Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, will go to Brussels on Friday or Monday, depending on the progress of continuing talks between British and EU officials.
David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister and Theresa May’s de facto deputy has promised publication of the UK’s Irish border proposal “very soon”, possibly as early as Thursday. This has the potential to be the first flashpoint in the fortnight ahead, but sources say it may not be published until the final deal is done.
If not there will be plenty of potential for leaks and bad tempers.
The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, has told Theresa May she wants sight of the text before any deal is struck, after the DUP House of Commons leader, Nigel Dodds, told the prime minister his party would vote against any deal that involved any new regulatory or customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The EU is also expected to deliver its new version of the backstop.
Wednesday 10 October
A critical day in the final countdown.
The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has pencilled in next Wednesday for the great unveiling of the EU’s political declaration on the future relationship with the UK. But it is “to be confirmed”.
If there has not been any progress on the Irish border issue, its publication is likely to be delayed. This will be the first sign of how well, or badly, talks are going.
As it stands, sources suggest that the paper is just “four to five pages” long and, apart from some extra aspirational language about deepening the trade relationship in time, the basic structure will be very similar to the Canada-style trade deal offered by the European council president, Donald Tusk, last March.
The British government is expected to double down on its position that there should be a temporary customs arrangement (TCA) under which the whole of the UK would in effect stay in the customs union, while having the ability to strike free trade deals with countries around the world.
The UK will also suggest that Northern Ireland could stay under EU single market regulations if the Stormont and Northern Ireland executive agree it.
Wednesday 17 October
Tusk is expected to invite EU leaders, excluding May, to discuss Brexit at a working dinner on 17 October in Brussels. It is not the only issue on their plates: the leaders, including May, are set to discuss migration, foreign policy and security at the formal summit the following day.
The EU summit has been cut to one day because of a long-planned meeting on 19 October between EU and Asian leaders. Bringing together heads of state and government from 51 countries, the meeting could add a piquant note to Brexit talks, as the British government prepares to strike out alone in pursuit of a “global Britain”.
Thursday 18 October
This has been billed as the “moment of truth” in the Brexit talks. The prime minister has already expressed her doubts that agreement on the Irish border issue can be found by the time of this summit.
The UK wants the political declaration to offer a more expansive vision of the future trade deal in order to give assurances that the backstop, however it is finally formulated, is never necessary.
Juncker has said he expects the meeting, which is supposed to last two days, but may be expanded to three, to be “interesting”. That appears to be diplomatic language for there being an almighty row.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has insisted that a subsequent summit in mid-November should be seen as a prize for resolution of the Irish issue. Can a solution be found within the corridors of the Europa building that satisfies both the EU and the UK? Sources on both sides admit to some bewilderment as to what this magic formula could be.
This meeting was first mooted by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who liked the idea of a formal goodbye to the UK, in which solemn promises of a tight friendship after Brexit could be made.
With progress on the Irish issue so troublesome, and deadlines slipping, the weekend summit is likely to be much more hard work than originally envisioned.
Less music and speeches, more frantic scribbling in gloomy rooms. It is not by any means certain that an agreement will be possible here.
Some see the talks dragging into December. It is the UK parliamentary timetable that is the problem. A certain number of weeks have been set down for votes on the withdrawal agreement.
This is also a tricky milestone. If there is no deal by this date, the British government must make a statement within five days on what the UK plans to do, according to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act of 2018.