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December 19, 2018

May’s strategy and the consequences of failure

Amidst the sound and fury over the government’s no-deal preparations, we noted an interesting story in the Guardian about Theresa May’s strategy to achieve a majority for her deal. The story says that the strategy consists first of getting the DUP on board, as this would lead to the Conservative opposition to her deal crumbling to a smaller, more manageable number. That would still leave her some 20 votes short of a majority, but the hope is to persuade a number of Labour MPs to back the deal.

We have argued before, too, that DUP support is absolutely critical for a deal. That will depend to a large extent on the EU’s readiness to compromise on the Irish backstop. We see no evidence of this, but this has partly to do with the illusion among some EU leaders that Brexit might be averted at the last minute. Once the reality of a no-deal Brexit as the only alternative to a deal sets in, we expect the position to shift as there are vital interests at stake in the EU as well - from German exporters to the French and Belgian border regions. 

The UK's no-deal preparations are now starting in earnest, with serious money committed to logistical operations, the involvement of troops at the ports, and even the mass purchase of refrigerators to store several months worth of medicines in case of a no-deal Brexit. We heard yesterday a senior Tory MP threatening to resign from the party in case of a no-deal Brexit, and we expect many others to follow him. The same would be true in case of a second referendum. In either of those cases, the May government would lose its governing majority. Election would follow in either case. So from a political perspective the choice to be made by Tory MPs is not so much deal vs no-deal but deal vs elections. May has been wise enough not to threaten this outright. There is no need to.

We note a further anecdotal sign that some of the more extremist commentators are reconsidering their position. Allison Pearson, one of the most unrelenting Brexiteers in the UK press, writes this morning that she has changed her mind about May’s deal. She is really scared by the prospect of a second referendum. As there is now growing certainty that May’s political career will not survive Brexit for a long time, we would not be surprised if Tory eurosceptics concluded that their best chances consist of accepting the deal, obtaining a majority in the next leadership election, and later defaulting on the deal using the Vienna Convention. We don’t think this is legally possible, but for so long as Tories believe that it is, we might consider this view a fortuitous error of judgement to be followed by the usual assertion that no one had told them. 

We also noted a story in the FT about the fury among pro-European Labour MPs about Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to bring about a vote of no-confidence. They are furious that Corbyn is not falling for their second-referendum ploy, which is what the whole no-confidence debate is about. Corbyn’s best chance to get into Number 10 is through elections, and the most likely path towards elections is through the failure of a deal, not through a second referendum. 

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December 19, 2018

Belgium loses its government

Belgium may be facing early elections after Charles Michel tendered his resignation to the king yesterday. Earlier this month, the hard-right Flemish party N-VA had left the ruling coalition in protest at Michel’s decision to sign the UN Pact on migration. Since then, the liberal prime minister had fought an increasingly desperate and politically messy fight to cling on to his position as the leader of a minority government. The bid foundered finally on the opposition’s decision to force a confidence vote next week. Michel went to see King Philippe, not waiting for the vote itself.

Belgium is one of the few European countries where the king retains a modest but real political role. He assists as an impartial facilitator in the often-complicated forming of a new government coalition, and is similarly involved in the management of a political crisis once a government has lost its majority. King Philippe, who faces his first test of this kind, could now ask the government to continue in a caretaker role while refraining from any new legislation. The alternative would be early elections ahead of those already scheduled for May.

Le Soir writes that the N-VA’s decision to quit the government offers clear evidence that it wants to make migration its main campaign topic in the next elections, despite having entered the coalition with the liberals in 2014 to focus on economic reform. Michel, the paper adds, lost a lot of credibility by veering frantically to the left and signalling a change of policy in the final hours of his premiership, in a bid to convince the opposition to grant him more time in office.

Given the fragmentation of Belgium’s political landscape, the possible shape of any government emerging from the next elections is impossible to predict. In 2010 it took over 500 days to form a new coalition, a situation that was avoided in 2014 when the liberals and conservatives accepted to enter a taboo-breaking coalition with the hard-right NVA. We note that Belgium has joined the growing club of countries whose politics have been thrown into a crisis by the migration issue. We expect climate change to become an equally disruptive issue in European politics soon.

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