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May 13, 2019

Brexit Party has already changed UK politics

In contrast to several UK commentators we have been arguing persistently that the probability of a no-deal Brexit remains elevated, and our view has not changed for a long time. The main risk is not an accident at the European Council, though views are shifting in the direction of Emmanuel Macron. The main risk is different: a shift in the political consensus in the UK that would make a no-deal outcome possible.

Over the weekend there were two opinion polls that managed to produce a dynamic of their own. The first is an Opinium survey for the Observer, according to which the Brexit Party is set to become the overall winner of the European elections on May 23 with 34% of the votes. Labour is a distant second with 21%, the LibDems get 12%, and the Tories 11%. A ComRes poll has the Brexit Party with a smaller lead of 27% versus Labour's 25%. But we note that the shift in voter preference towards the Brexit Party is fairly recent, and ongoing. Nigel Farage gets more media airtime than any other candidate for the European Parliament, and the Change UK party is completely non-existent. The LibDems are having a relatively good time with their "bollocks to Brexit" campaign. But this is a race between a united Brexit Party and a disunited Labour Party.  

Even though the Tories are expecting to lose the European elections, these figures still come as a shock to them. Another opinion poll showed that the Brexit Party is ahead of the Tories even on for national elections, at 20% versus 19%. Obviously the Tories will not go into the next elections with Theresa May as leader. We have no doubt that the Tories will end up electing a eurosceptic as their next leader simply because this is what it will take to neutralise Farage's challenge. His Brexit Party greatly benefits from the system of proportional representation in the European elections, but he will not be nearly as strong in a national poll.

We believe the Tories are very likely to have a new leader in place for the party conference in late September. That new leader would then attend the European Council in October. It is possible, indeed likely, that the UK parliament will try to spring another Cooper bill with a narrow majority, but a prime minister hell-bent on a no-deal Brexit has several wrecking tools at his or her disposal, such as an orchestrated House of Lords filibuster or the prorogation of parliament. Tory candidates are confronted by angry constituents over their failure to deliver Brexit. Can we really rule out a political calculus that the next prime minister would deliver a hard Brexit in October, and then make way for new elections in the spring of 2020 once the initial shock of a hard Brexit is absorbed?

The FT reports that the latest opinion polls have hardened the readiness of the Tories to put the knife into Theresa May. The date to watch out for is this Thursday, the next meeting of the Tory backbench 1922 committee, which May is due to address. The committee wants her to give a binding departure date, Brexit or no Brexit. The possible rule change in relation to the 12-month reprieve for a leader after a confidence vote is still in the cards, but we don't think it will come to that. 

We would like to end with the following two observations. In the British first-past-the-post voting system, you can win an election with 35% or 40% of the votes, depending on the other parties. If a new Tory leader manages to unite the pro-Brexit vote, there is a chance they would get to such a level. 

We also noted a comment in Die Welt, which interprets the rise of the Brexit Party as confirmation of the referendum and concludes that hopes of a Brexit reversal have been delusional. If Farage's Party were to win the European elections in a landslide, we would expect opinion within the European Council to shift further. Macron will get his I-told-you-so moment.

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May 13, 2019

Orbán visits Trump, after a very long wait

It is going to be interesting to watch how Donald Trump handles Viktor Orbán’s first visit to the White House today, the first by a Hungarian PM in over twenty years. On the face of it, no other EU head of government is ideologically as close to Trump as Orbán. And yet, surprisingly, Orbán had to wait for his invitation to meet Trump for over two years, which made him as the NYT reports the last central European leader to be invited to the White House. In dealing with Orbán, the political concerns of the traditional Washington establishment had until now won over Trumpism. The NYT mentions the presence and influence Orbán has granted Moscow and Beijing, concerns over the authoritarianism in Orbán’s Hungary, and other critiques uniting Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress.

However, the first two years of Trump in the White House have shown that the president loves to ignore the Washington establishment consensus and relishes to provoke cross-party dismay by going his own way in foreign policy. Orbán may have had to wait a painfully long time for his invitation, but Trump’s welcome could well be all the more effusive for it. We would not rule out that the unfolding of an Orbán-Trump political lovefeast, if it comes to that, will further hasten Orbán's exit from the EPP.

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May 13, 2019

Le Pen's appeal to the PiS likely to fall on deaf ears

On a trip to Brussels earlier this month, Marine Le Pen appealed to both Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s PiS to join into what she and Matteo Salvini hope will be a grand alliance of all national populists in the next European Parliament. How Viktor Orbán will respond is open at this stage, even if his exit from the EPP looks increasingly certain. The likely response of the PiS is another matter. As recent comments by senior party officials and the PiS’ current campaign for the EU elections show, the party leadership has come to the conclusion that its remaining power and share of the electorate are threatened if voters begin to think that the PiS might even inadvertently trigger Plexit. It is not just the UK example which is a turn-off. The rural PiS electorate is conscious that EU membership is the best guarantor for Poland’s agriculture. The euro might be unpopular in Poland, and EU federalism suspect for Polish conservatives, but EU membership is part of modern Poland's raison d’Etat.

Some of the parties that have already decided to enter the alliance with Salvini are far too wobbly or, like the Rassemblement National, deliberately opaque on the question of whether the EU should be reformed or dismantled. This represents a potentially serious liability for the PiS. Add to this the fact that PiS sees itself in the tradition of Jozef Pilsudski, Poland’s answer to De Gaulle and a conservative who battled against the extreme right. The unlikelihood of the PiS sharing a political bed with the AfD and similar parties becomes apparent, even without PiS concerns about the proximity of Salvini and Le Pen to Russia.

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