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February 04, 2019

Watch out for the resurgence in Tory unity

The most important political trend over the last three days in the UK has been the reemergence of Tory unity and, linked to this, a shockingly large rise in the polls. As the Times columnist Philip Collins noted, the party has rediscovered its legendary survival instinct. 

Where does this leave Brexit? Theresa May has mapped out a narrow path towards a deal - a side treaty, or codicil, to give legal clarification to the temporary nature of the Irish backstop; more money for Labour constituencies; perhaps acceptance of some of Labour's policies, and maybe changes to the political declaration. It is also not hard to see where this strategy could go wrong. 

The Observer has an opinion poll showing a landslide shift in favour of the Tories. The previous Opinium Research poll had Labour ahead of the Tories by 40% to 37%. But the latest poll has the Tories ahead, at 41% against Labour's 34%. That's a ten-point swing. This result now squares with polling from YouGov, which had the Tories ahead by 6 points. The poll does not necessarily make an election more likely, but it disproves the theory that the Tories cannot conceivably win it. They could, for example, fight the election on the basis of the so-called Malthouse proposal - acceptance of the withdrawal treaty minus the Irish backstop. If this position were to find a majority in the electorate, it would cast the next government's negotiating position in cement. 

We were struck by a comment from Juliet Samuel in The Telegraph. We know her as one of the more level-headed and informed among the British commentariat, but we were surprised to read that she now favours a hard Brexit without a deal. We think she is, as so many Brexiteers, naïve about the EU's willingness to strike a trade deal after a no-deal Brexit. We would assume that the EU would insist on agreement on the equivalent sections of the withdrawal treaty, including the Irish backstop and the financial settlement, as preconditions for any broader deals with the UK. But however realistic the assumptions may be, her comment raises the question whether a hard Brexit may be the one Brexit option with the greatest potential to unite the party. 

In his Times column, Collins writes that May should have narrowed down the three Brexit options - deal, no deal, remain - to two. He argues, as so many other commentators do, that the parliament's opposition to a no-deal Brexit implies that the natural choice is between deal and remain. The problem is that this argument can be turned on its head. There is no outright majority in the parliament for Remain either. This is why May's best strategy for now is to keep this equidistance. 

The reason we believe a deal is most likely is the shifting position of the Labour Party. Polly Toynbee, a pro-Remain Guardian columnist, is exasperated by Jeremy Corbyn. 

"The shock of the failure of the Cooper amendment was that it was brought down by 25 Labour MPs voting against or abstaining: no one expected many beyond the usual Eurosceptics. But they were joined by sensible people...who understand real-world effects of parliamentary gestures. It was shocking too that eight shadow ministers defying a vital three-line whip... were not sacked... They were given a wink that they wouldn’t lose their posts. Jeremy Corbyn’s heart never seems 100% in the great Brexit fight – to put it politely."

But a deal is far from guaranteed. Here is a plausible no-deal scenario: Assume that May comes back from the March 21 summit with an insufficient guarantee on the backstop. The Parliament would vote on Tuesday, March 26. If the vote is no, then parliament might then vote on revocation of Brexit, a motion that would also fail. The following day, May would inform the European Council that the UK is leaving the EU without an agreement, but would seek an extension to minimise the disruption.

We still think that a deal is the most likely option but, if it were to fail, we consider the above sequence as the most plausible alternative. Parliament's opposition to no-deal is irrelevant if it cannot translate into a Remain vote.

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February 04, 2019

The gilets-jaunes' effect on the European elections

In only three months everything has changed for Emmanuel Macron and the European elections. After the gilets jaunes, his plans for an anti-populist front against Matteo Salvini and Vitor Orbán are reduced to a side-show. His vision for Europe - as outlined in his Sorbonne speech more than a year ago - looks today like a fantasy, with the Franco-German engine on the slow burner. 

The gilets jaunes changed the game and the message for the European elections. Macron's team now promised a big campaign push on a Europe that protects, kicking off at the end of February. And Macron might use the event of the European elections to reinvent himself at home. According to Journal du Dimanche Macron is about to go for a referendum to coincide with the European elections in May. Preparations are already under way: ballot papers have been pre-ordered and there seems to be a consensus to ask multiple questions coming out of the grand débat. The cabinet and the MPs are still divided over the timing, as some prefer a referendum to be held later in the autumn so as not to weigh on Macorn's pro-European campaign. Macron himself said last week that a referendum risks to divide rather than illuminate the will of the people, and that he prefers a standing platform for deliberation instead. But the pressure to produce some tangible results from the grand débat is strong, and the time window to decide on a referendum in May will be closing soon.

Will the grand débat hijack or reinvent the European election campaign? There is no doubt that the two are interlinked, even if the referendum is held at a later stage. The question will be how Macron can integrate those two themes without losing momentum in one or the other.

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February 04, 2019

What did he possibly mean by that?

The big discussion point in Germany, triggered by a newspaper interview with Gerhard Schröder, is the possible come-back of Sigmar Gabriel. Schröder called Andrea Nahles, the SPD leader, amateurish. He does not believe that she has the capacity to lead the SPD to victory. And he added that Gabriel was, as he put it, probably the most talented politician the party has. 

One of us met Gabriel a few months ago when it became clear to us that Gabriel was waiting for the right moment to strike back. He gave a strong defence of the political centre as the SPD's one-and-only battleground. He has strong allies in the German media. He left no doubt that he was politically closer to Angela Merkel than to the SPD's political mainstream. 

This is how we should understand Gabriel's extraordinary Project Syndicate column, in which he dismissed the Aachen treaty as not being in the German interest. He writes that France and Germany have separate interests, and that Germany should not so easily abandon its good relations with the US and the UK. 

His column triggered a strong riposte by Zaki Laidi, who points that France has no interest in weakening Nato on which it depends too. He notes that Gabriel seems to reject the whole concept of strategic autonomy, and wonders how it is possible for a politician to support the concept of European sovereignty, as Gabriel does, without support for strategic autonomy.

We see Gabriel's foray entirely in a domestic context. He is carving out a left-nationalistic niche in German politics. Watch that space. Literally.

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