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April 24, 2019

May's final and biggest gamble

Greta Thunberg is a welcomed distraction for Brexit-wary MPs and newspaper headline writers. But the reality beneath the surface is that we have entered one of the most intensive phases of the Brexit process yet. Theresa May is now considering a new strategy: not to bring another meaningful vote, but to go full-monty for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, the entire legislative package, as early as next week. 

Of course, the majorities in the House of Commons have not changed, and there is zero chance that she can pass this bill without the support of at least a good number of Labour MPs. Her calculation is complex. The broad idea is that the legislation, which is amendable, could pave the way to a customs union. The Guardian reports that May appeared to be working towards  the reluctant acceptance of a customs union during a cabinet meeting yesterday. The parliamentary process could serve as a mechanism to produce such an outcome without May having to commit herself.

For now, May is running a dual strategy - the other being the official negotiations with Jeremy Corbyn and his team. May and Corbyn distrust each other. Both sides accuse the other of delaying tactics. Labour will only agree to support the WAB if May first signals a willingness to compromise. The strategy to table a withdrawal bill without a formal agreement between the party leaders would be risky for May. She would then need to rely on Labour rebels to support the bill - essentially those in favour of the customs union but opposed to a second referendum.

The gamble is risky, but not irrational. Labour advocates of a customs union are not opposed to the WAB itself, as it only sets out the legal terms for the withdrawal leaving the future relationship open. For Tories, the massive incentive to pass this bill lies in the prospect of accelerating May's departure without the need for a messy leadership challenge. If the bill were passed next week the UK would cancel the European elections, assuming that Brexit would be completed by end-May as agreed with the European Council. 

If parliament were to reject the WAB in its second reading, the government would be legally prohibited from tabling it again during the current parliamentary term. But the big procedural attraction is that this process would allow MPs to table amendments. If the Commons were to support Kenneth Clarke's version of a customs union in the form of an amendment to the bill, it might be easier for MPs to pass the package. 

All MPs would have to consider the consequences of a rejection. Elections would become more likely. Many MPs on both sides would be losing their seats. Nigel Farage's Brexit party has had a tremendously successful launch. The new Change UK Party launched its European platform yesterday, but is unlikely to have much of an impact. And their MPs would be most vulnerable in a national election. 

The customs union is the most likely amendment to succeed. The second referendum will almost certainly be an option. The Daily Telegraph reports that Sajid Javid, the home secretary, said the outcome should not tie the hands of future governments, and suggested unilateral amendments to the actual bills itself - in others words a course of action that would legally invalidate the bill. Astonishingly, the Tories are once again talking about the Malthouse compromise, to which they seem to return like a drug addict.

Another important strand of the story is the increasing probability of a Tory leadership challenge. We reported yesterday that MPs returned from the Easter holidays with a renewed determination to oust May at the earliest possibility. The 1922 Tory backbench committee is currently holding meetings to discuss whether to scrap the rule that protects a prime minister from a subsequent leadership challenge for one year. The debate is whether to reduce the time frame to six months - which would make another challenge possible in June - or whether to scrap it altogether. While the committee is generally split between remainers and leavers, opinion seems to be moving against May because of the dreadful polling numbers. A decision may be taken today, ahead of a full meeting of all Tory backbenchers. 

So how do these various strands fit together? The decision to focus on the WAB itself makes sense to us in view of the increasingly certain leadership challenge. Eurosceptics who are hellbent on a no-deal Brexit might still reject the bill. They might bet on May being replaced with a Tory eurosceptic, most likely Boris Johnson. It is not clear that he could single-handedly deliver a no-deal Brexit, but the risk of it happening are clearly higher with a prime minister committed to such action. It was May who prevented a no-deal Brexit, not the silly amendments to take no-deal off the table. 

The process would pose an interest dilemma for Labour MPs. Even if the official talks with the government fail, Labour could still prevail in the amendment votes - perhaps with the tacit support of May. In doing so, they could kill off the second referendum, an issue that threatens the unity of the Labour Party. May needs about 30 Labour MPs to support her and no Tory MPs to desert her.

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April 24, 2019

Will the EP be Brexit's great parliamentary beneficiary?

Brexit has transformed the perception of British politics in the rest of the EU - obviously for the worse. The word obvious is operational for our purpose here: what made the change so very apparent to such a wide public was the televised transmission of the UK parliament’s descent into chaos - political reality TV, live from the mother of all parliaments.

Here is a prediction. The one institution that will benefit most from the image loss of the continent’s most-respected parliament is the European Parliament - the one that over the decades has struggled most with image problems. It had long and widely been accepted as an unassailable fact that, in the comparison between Westminster and the European Parliament,  everything spoke to the former’s advantage. Not so anymore. The EP’s sedate debating style, the courtesies shown to political opponents, the practice of cross-party cooperation, all suddenly seem refreshing expressions of a political culture delivering results instead of radical uncertainty in a matter essential to the future of the polity. MEPs have realised that positive image change to their institution’s and their own political advantage is afoot, and Brexit debates in the EP have seen more than a few gloating asides to this effect. As the French saying goes, the misfortune of some makes for the happiness of others.

The question is to what extent the EP will be able to capitalise on this unexpected rise of its political market value. The times when the EP was a club for lovable cranks, wide-eyed idealists and political retirees are long gone. These days, MEPs regularly rise to top political office in their home countries. But the EP’s impact on European politics has been obscured by the duopoly of EPP and S&D shaping its working for decades and often acting as a consensus machine. This has rendered the observation of EP politics a job for professionals or for that rarest of species, voluntary addicts to the meanderings of European policy. But that duopoly, as all polls predict, will no longer have enough voting power to secure its rule in the new EP. EP politics will become less predictable, which in itself should raise the EP's profile. Blocking decisions and making a fuss, as the Westminster telenovela has shown, is the best way to attract continental attention.

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April 24, 2019

Can Loiseau fight the far right given her past?

Nathalie Loisseau was never a career politician. Now that she is  leading the list for Emmanuel Macron into the European elections, her political past from her student days in coming back to haunt her. Mediapart revealed on Monday that in her student days Loisseau appeared in sixth position on the candidate list of UED, a students' union at the Sciences Po university linked to the far-right movement GUD. This dates back to some 35 years ago, and students' affiliations may be more social than political. Still, how could she have ignored the radical nature of that list? 

Her defence today, that she did not know and was just stupid, sounds hardly convincing and ignorant at best. A storm of controversy followed on social media. This undermines her credibility just as she was about to construct her public persona as the major opponent of the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. The core of her campaign has so far been all about beating Le Pen in the polls. Given the latest revelations, this seems to not have been such a smart move. Loiseau still has some cards to play, like the LREM programme to be unveiled May 9. But doubts are rising, writes l'Opinion.

This episode will be Loiseau's baptism of fire as a politician. She will have to prove that she can move forward in the face of adversity and bring in her strength and persona as a quality rather than a liability.

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