The Waugh Zone Wednesday October 17, 2018

1. SUMMIT’S IN THE AIR

In Parliament yesterday, Pepper the robot’s arms and head moved while it gave pre-programmed answers to questions which had been sent in advance. The whole thing was a dreadful stunt, more artifice than artificial intelligence. This evening, as Theresa May makes her “moment of truth” pitch in Brussels, the fear is that she will be as just mechanically predictable, failing to give the ‘creative’ answers the EU27 leaders are demanding on Brexit. There may be no big moment, let alone much new truth.

Unless we are all being played, and unless this is all a cunning piece of expectation management cooked up by London and Brussels, it looks like tonight will be a damp squib. The EU’s Donald Tusk said last night he wanted something ‘concrete’ from May, but her MPs and Cabinet have not yet agreed a detailed new offer to get through the impasse. When I asked the PM’s spokesman yesterday if ministers had actually agreed anything rather than merely held a discussion, his reply was a peach. “Was this a decision-making Cabinet? The answer to that is no.” If Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t mention that answer in PMQs today, he’ll be missing a chance to make a wider point about the paralysis caused by Tory splits over Brexit. (For her part, May could seize on this Indy report that Corbyn told the Labour Leave campaign in the EU referendum to ‘keep up the good work’).

Mutual self-interest is the driver towards avoiding a no-deal outcome. And the EU’s Michel Barnier was helpful to May last night when it emerged he was warming to her idea of a UK-wide temporary customs arrangement to solve the Irish problem. He also sounds open to the idea of extending the UK’s ‘transition’ period by a year, to give more time to hammer out a solution. Flexibility is one thing, a willingness to give up on the EU’s ‘backstop’ plan is another. No.10 confirmed to us yesterday that Britain stood by in full the joint report from December, confirmed in March. And as Irish deputy PM Simon Coveney pointed out on the Today programme, the UK…

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