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September 10, 2018

Steadfast Juppé stays true to embattled Macron

Public opinion is turning against Emmanuel Macron, as the latest polls show his popularity dropping down to only 31%. This is less than what François Hollande had at this time, according to l'Opinion. The same character traits the French liked about Macron in the beginning are now increasingly seen as defects. The notoriously impatient French public fails to see the results of his presidency, and starts to shift its perspective. Will the heroic legend turn into political tragedy?

The opposition parties take advantage of Macron's current weakness while moderates on the right question the support they so willingly granted only last year. There is however one senior figure who stands out and sticks to his line: Alain Juppé. Over the weekend, he met with his friends to discuss the future relationship with the president. Juppé made his preference clear: helping  wherever possible at home and abroad. Will there be a common list for the European elections with LREM? Juppé leaves this question open, which in itself is good news for the executive. He ruled out leading the list himself, building up instead, as the French press writes, his authority as the elder sage in the background. Juppé also draws on the political weight he derives from being one of the personalities most representative of and respected within the moderate right of the political spectrum (58% in the polls), according to Libération.

As Juppé reaffirms his support, the rest of the political landscape has hardly changed as opposition to Macron remains both fragmented and weakened, concludes Cécile Cornudet. Even the firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon seemed softened after meeting Emmanuel Macron in Marseille last weekend. Marine Le Pen may continue her attacks, but her financial difficulties are such that in an extreme scenario they could be the end of her party. As for the embattled Socialists, they are at the same time courted and pressured on the left by Mélenchon and prevented from finding their own new space due to the omnipresence of François Hollande who refuses to leave the stage.

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September 10, 2018

Sweden’s Democrats and Germany’s AfD: they don’t win elections, but they set the political agenda

It is a mistake to get too hung up on numbers and polling trends. We noted recently a German journalist extrapolating the AfD polling numbers and concluding that the party would soon overtake the CDU. This is nonsense, of course. The problem with the Swedish Democrats and the AfD is a different one. They are political agenda setters. And they drive centrist parties into permanent grand coalitions, a toxic form of government that leaves the extremists as the main opposition parties. In yesterday’s election in Sweden, the provisional results show that the centre-left will have 144 seats, the centre-right 143 seats, and the Democrats 62 seats - on a share of just 17%. What happened in Sweden yesterday is very similar to what happened in Germany last year. It is no longer possible for the centre-left or the centre-right to form a governing coalition and for the looser to become the main opposition party. We estimate the AfD’s maximum potential vote in Germany is probably not higher than 20%. The Left Party has a share of more or less 10%. It is much less extreme than the AfD. But since the SPD refuses to form a coalition with them, this leaves the five centrist parties - CDU, CSU, SPD, Greens, FDP as the only candidates for government. If the extremists get a share of 30% - give or take - this leaves 70% for the others. For a majority you need at least 50%.

The Swedish election results will force a realignment of politics in Sweden as the two party blocks are now essentially the same size. The hard-right Democrats will not be in power but as in Germany and in Italy, they will set the agenda.

While Italy remains the eurozone’s greatest source of economic vulnerability, the situation in Germany is more worrying politically as the drift to the right is putting strains on the centre. The country is now at the brink of a political crisis following the recent riots in Chemnitz and the aftermath. The SPD is calling for the resignation of Horst Seehofer, interior minister and CSU chief, and Hans-George Maaßen, president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s version of Britain’s MI5 or the US Department of Homeland Security. The trigger was a controversial claim by Maaßen, subsequently reiterated by Seehofer, last week. Maaßen said he had evidence that a much publicised video showing right-wingers hunting down a group of refugees was fake. He is now under pressure to come up with a proof of his assertion. The Greens want the entire institution dismantled and replaced with a new one. The FDP is calling on Angela Merkel to back or sack Maaßen. He is due to appear before the home affairs committee of the Bundestag later this week. Sparks will fly. 

The Chemnitz riots were triggered by the suspected murder of a young German by a Syrian and an Iraqi refugee. Over the weekend there has been another death in the neighbouring eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Two Afghans were arrested following a fight. The victim had head injuries, but died of a heart attack.  As in Chemnitz, right-wing groups have called for demonstrations. 

The AfD is the main orchestrator of the riots, and some of its officials participated in it. The party’s lurch to the right is extraordinary. Over the weekend we discovered the following AfD billboard for the state elections in Bavaria.

 

The Nazi parallels are hard to overlook. Another parallel is the feedback loop between political chaos resulting from the extremist parties and the rise in their poll ratings. The Chemnitz riots have benefitted the AfD. The latest polls have the AfD at between 15-17%, similar to the result of the Democrats in Sweden.

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September 10, 2018

Is Boris going to challenge Theresa May?

To deflect from the separation of his second wife, Boris Johnson created a classic diversion by comparing Theresa May to a suicide bomber. It had the desired effect. Even the tabloids are no longer talking about the divorce any more. 

The bigger debate is whether he will or won’t challenge Theresa May for the leadership. It is a big one-time-only bet. He only needs 48 votes to trigger a vote-of-confidence procedure among the 316 Tory MPs. If the PM gets a majority, there will be no other leadership contest for at least another year. Johnson would have blown his chance. If the PM loses, she would have to resign. If there are more than two candidates, as there will be, MPs will preselect two, followed by a postal ballot among the Tory’s 100,000-or-so members. Johnson thus faces two big hurdles. Win the confidence vote, and get on the shortlist. If he gets on the list, he is most likely to be elected. His problem is to get there. 

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson had an article over the weekend in which he claimed word had reached him, from the Commons’ tea room no less, that Johnson was about to go for it. That is not telling us that it is about to happen. Johnson may have changed his mind already. False signals are clearly part of his strategy. Watson writes that Johnson’s backers do have the 48 voters to trigger the challenge. Johnson's Telegraph column this morning sets out a broad economic agenda against higher taxes and in favour of an economic stimulus. This is clearly intended to form a political basis for the challenge, one that goes beyond Brexit itself.

We think this is tactically clever. The main criticism of May is not so much her preferred version of Brexit but the total lack of a political vision for the country after it has left the EU. The vision of the Remain campaign is reduced to getting back into the EU, one way or the other. That failed as a referendum campaign theme, and it is failing as post-referendum strategy. A Tory leadership campaign based on a fiscal expansion is smart politics.   

We should take a leadership challenge extremely seriously because Tory MPs do not believe that May is in a position to fight and win an election. If she were to lose the vote on the withdrawal deal, elections would be very likely. 

If Johnson became Tory leader and PM, he would dump Chequers and call for a Canada-type deal. This would lead to a head-on confrontation with the EU over the Irish backstop, which will remain unacceptable to the UK in this particular scenario. If the EU blinks over Ireland, there will be a compromise. Otherwise, a hard Brexit.

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