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June 27, 2017

Nothing much happened in the UK yesterday

The UK has a government. The Tories and the DUP have finally signed an agreement to guarantee parliamentary support for the government during the most critical votes, including this Thursday’s vote on the Queen's speech. 

Theresa May will remain prime minister, at least during of the Brexit process. And, if she delivers Brexit with a reasonable degree of success, she will remain prime minister after that. Brexit negotiations will go ahead according to the mandate May delivered to the European Council in March. We think there will be an agreement as long as Britain accepts a transitional period during which it will pay its full rebated EU contributions. Support for such an agreement has risen on both sides of the British political spectrum. Nothing has really changed with the elections.

So, one might wonder what all the fuss was about. The consensus among UK political commentators over the last few weeks has been that May will either leave within days, or at most within a few months. They got it wrong because they failed to see two things. The first is that the rules for minority governments are very different. The UK experiences from 1974-1979 are relevant, but this is not a time the commentators remember personally. The lesson from that era is: minority governments are bloody difficult, but they can last a surprisingly long time. 

The second problem the UK-based commentators ignored is the political dynamics of Brexit. David Davies is absolutely right on this: a change of government in the middle of the Brexit talks would be a disaster. It is one scenario that would make even us consider the possibility of a Brexit reversal. The reason we do not believe in this scenario is simply the idea that the Conservatives may not be quite so stupid as to self-destruct now.

The consensus in the UK’s political class is now that May will survive. By far the best of the comments yesterday is by Clare Forges in the Times, who writes that the opprobium heaped upon May has been totally out of proportion. The Maybot, as she is called, is not an inspiring leader but is at least a competent one. Forges writes she had not been a supporter of May, but that the attacks against the PM have been spiteful and unfair. We totally agree with her conclusion:

"Beggars can’t be choosers — and a country looking down the barrel of Brexit, riven by division and with Jeremy Corbyn at the gates of Downing Street does not have the luxury of trying out another new leader."

David Allen Green wrote a sensible Brexit comment in his FT blog. If you think that it was a mistake to a call for a euro referendum, as many of us do, then sure it would be a mistake to call for a second referendum. The EU referendum produced a clear majority - more people voted to leave the EU in 2016 than voted in favour of EU membership in 1975. The main conclusion one should draw from this experience is to accept the result, but to end the referendum habit right now. The UK must return to parliamentary democracy. This, and nowhere else, is where a reversal of Brexit should take place if it were to take place.

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June 27, 2017

Another expedient Merkel U-turn

Germany is one of the countries without a law enabling homosexuals to marry. What they have is a law on civil partnership, introduced by the Schröder government 15 years ago and providing almost the same rights, including tax benefits, but crucially not the right to adopt children. The CDU and the CSU have the usual problems with this subject, which is why the law has not been touched. In an interview yesterday, Angela Merkel came out with a declaration that she would be ready to open up this issue to a free vote - which means it would pass in the Bundestag with the support of some CDU/CSU MPs who are not in agreement with the party’s official line. 

It is, of course, no accident that Merkel is taking this decision now. It is yet another example of her strategy to foreclose any avenues for Martin Schulz to built up momentum. We observe that this strategy is working for now, though it comes across as a bit cynical so we are not sure it will work all the way. We agree with the consensus that Merkel is very likely to win reelection, but Schulz’ strong rhetorical performance during the SPD party congress on the weekend, and the largely positive reaction he received, tells us that we should not write him off prematurely.

For us the main issue is not who will win the elections, but what coalition will emerge. With a strong result the SPD might still become a partner in the next government coalition.

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June 27, 2017

A Sir Humphrey under Macron?

Will the French public administration turn into the Achilles heel of the French government? The latest blunder over bee-killing pesticides makes one wonder. The story is about a leak to the press suggesting that the government is about to revise the legislation prohibiting bee-killing neonicotinoids, a law that angered farmers when it came into force in 2016. The agriculture minister Stéphane Travert confirmed this yesterday, just to be contradicted by his colleague Nicolas Hulot. The prime minister had to intervene and put an end to this blunder by confirming that there will be no revision. Who is to blame? The civil service, says the Macron team.

Cécile Cornudet wonders whether the civil service is using the fragility of the new cabinet to push its own agenda. A similar incident was the leak of the labour reform law. As a consequence, the director general in the labour ministry filed a complaint against the ministry's own agents, who had leaked a working document in “Libération.” An unprecedented move. 

The civil service's attempts to rein in ministers are well known. The unforgettable Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister, springs to mind. But under Macron’s "yes, we can" modus operandi and the spoils system where top jobs in the administration now go to Macron's supporters, this is no longer a tactic available to the civil service.

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