SO it begins with Thanet. In deep east Kent on Monday, as groggy punters recovering from 2018 get behind their wheels and make for Dover, the Department for Transport will unleash 150 heavy goods vehicles from a disused airfield in Manston. On the A2 and M8, every lorry, every van will join Chris Grayling’s caravan of love.

The purpose of this managed debacle is to “establish the safest optimum release rate” for lorries which find themselves and their wilting British produce caught in 20-mile tailbacks at the channel ports. We’re told this synchronised HGVing will help us “see if Britain is ready for a no-deal Brexit”. Essentially, the British Government is trying to identify which kind of traffic jam is the best kind of traffic jam.

On the Transport Secretary’s current form, this looks guaranteed to be a fiasco. Weeping truckers. Kentish parents trapped in the morning school run for 14 hours with only a Tracker bar to sustain them as their Capri Sun supplies run dry. Red-faced booze-cruisers hitting the Pinot Noir in frustration on the hard shoulder. Photo opportunities in gratuitous hard helmets and high-viz jackets, as the Transport Secretary surveys the chaos he has wrought. First foot, first foot put in it. Well, second foot, if you count the plucky, boatless British start-up with which Mr Grayling has entrusted a £13.8 million shipping contract to traffic freight from Ramsbottom to Ostend.

Back in 2016, 62.2% of Doverians voted to leave the European Union. Ruining their mornings before rolling out the misery to the rest of the country seems only equitable. Pondering the weight of traffic and bodies passing through the channel ports, you might be modestly sceptical that laying on just 150 extra vans during the rush-hour will adequately stress-test the impact of major delays to Britain’s roll-on, roll-off trade between Calais and Dover.

According to official figures for 2017, some 2.6 million lorries passed through the port, bringing with them something in the region of 17% of the UK’s whole trade in goods, with an attached £122 billion price tag. And that’s not counting the 11,723,411 passengers, 2,180,611 tourist cars and 79,638 coaches crossing the 30-mile strait from France to Britain.

Leave the EU without a deal? Well, brace yourself comrades. Particularly comrades in the business of pastoral farming. We’ve Michael Gove to thank for sketching out some of the consequences of tariffs and snarling up this trade route. He told the Oxford Farming Conference last week that EU trade accounts for 90% of beef and lamb exports.

“It’s a grim but inescapable fact that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the effective tariffs on beef and sheep meat would be above 40% – in some cases well above that,” he said. Even factoring in the potential relief exchange rates might bring, the Environment Secretary conceded that “the costs imposed by new tariffs would undoubtedly exceed any adjustment in the currency markets”.

His speech also underscored the significance of Grayling’s white-van wargames. “While the EU have pledged to accelerate the process whereby the UK is recognised as a third country and we can continue to export food to their markets freely, all products of animal origin will have to go through border inspection posts and, at the moment, the EU have said 100% of products will face sanitary and phytosanitary checks,” he explained.

And as things stand? At the moment there are no border inspection posts at Calais. “While we do hope the French take steps to build capacity there,” Gove went on, “that capacity is unlikely by the end of March to be generous.”

THE implications for Ireland remain profound, though reckless indifference continues to characterise Brexit’s noisiest proponents. Reports this week suggest the Police Service of Northern Ireland have sought the assistance of 1000 police officers from across the UK in the event of a deal-less departure from the EU and the imposition of a hard border across Ireland. You don’t need a profound sense of history to hear the uncomfortable resonances of deploying scores of English and Scottish police officers on the streets of Belfast and Derry.

If I was a pop-eyed Brexiteer, I’d be surveying these no-deal Brexit preparations with anxiety and suspicion. As Grayling’s lorries take to the road, in London, MPs are returning from their constituencies to vote on Mrs May’s Brexit deal. The winter hasn’t been kind to the plan. If the Prime Minister hoped to appeal over the head of her party colleagues to the greying grassroots of her party, this strategy has failed and failed comprehensively.

The National: Chris Grayling

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling will finally put his lack of talents to good use

Given a three-way choice between remaining in the EU, leaving on Mrs May’s terms or crashing out on March 29 without an accord, a YouGov poll found 15% of Tory members would choose to remain, 57% would support leaving the EU without an agreement and just 23% backed the Prime Minister’s deal. Pressed into a deal-or-no-deal either-or, just 29% of party members polled backed Theresa May, with some 64% preferring to depart having agreed nothing.

Colour me unstunned. In its reactionary impulses, the dead and the dying Conservative membership increasingly resembles Monty Python’s Crimson Permanent Assurance. A band of elderly accountants-turned-pirates, determined to float off “to find, explore, the funds offshore, and scourge the shoals of bankruptcy”. When the inevitable mutiny strikes and the current captain is keel-hauled, Poseidon only knows what kind of crackpot these old salts will pick to lead them.

Against this unpromising backdrop, the paranoid Brexiteer must suspect the Prime Minister may be inclined to take desperate measures. Her attempts at persuasion having failed to sway her party both inside and outside the House of Commons, if her deal is to stand a snowball’s chance in hell of passing, the political dynamic must change.

Officially, the “no-deal” preparations are just responsible government, anticipating and reacting to the challenges which a deal-less departure from the EU would inevitably generate. But it is now in Theresa May’s best interests to give the British people a vivid vignette of the weakness and good old-fashioned lack of government capacity which a “no-deal” Brexit will cruelly expose. Abstract warnings about the impact may not cut through – but I imagine it is difficult to have national pride about a 20-mile tailback, even if your name is Sir John Alan Redwood.

By handing Grayling the transport brief, the Prime Minister has chosen to send her weakest general to one of her toughest fronts. And just once in his ministerial career, just once in his bungling public life, Chris Grayling’s mediocrity can finally do the state some service. The genius of this plan is you needn’t even cut Grayling in on the scam. All you need to do is let Grayling be Grayling, and chances are he’ll come a cropper. This is a dummy run in Thanet in more ways than one.

But for all political parties, squeaky bum time is now upon us. If there was ever scope to cut a different deal with the EU, it is now gone. Ian Blackford recognises that “every party needs to take their responsibility and do everything in their power to find a way out of this mess”.

The SNP have been – understandably – attempting to identify a politically more congenial third way, which avoids leaving the EU without a deal, and falls short of backing the PM’s plan. Despite their best efforts, that third way has not materialised. At the turn of the year, it looks unlikely to materialise. For their different reasons, Theresa May and the European Research Group are content to run down the clock. As MPs return to parliament, and consider their options, the awkward question for Blackford and his colleagues becomes this: Theresa May’s deal, or no deal? Choose.