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June 29, 2020

Édouard Philippe - mayor or prime minister?

A couple of lessons from France's municipal elections may be relevant at the national level. One is that environmentalists surprised by winning 9 large cities, including Lyon, Bourdeaux and Strasbourg. They even came very close to winning in Lille and Toulouse. This is a historic victory for the Greens, and a substantial increase compared with only one city won last time. It also bears witness that green policy can still be a vote winner after the lockdown. The second important result is the strong showing by Édouard Philippe, who won Le Havre with nearly 60%. The media seems sold on the idea that his days are now counted as prime minister. Why?

With only 22 months to go until the next presidential elections, Emmanuel Macron is preparing his re-election bid which is due to be unveiled early next week. A government reshuffle is expected, and Philippe is now a prominent head that may have to go.

To us it seems cynical that the one candidate actually winning an election would lose his job as prime minister, where he also gained popularity due to his level-headed management of the Covid-19 crisis. Philippe, meanwhile, plays the loyalty card and shows no resistance to an eventual departure from Matignon. It is the president who decides, he tells the press with a smile. Very smooth, and obviously not credible.

Such a move would be a high-risk gamble for Macron. How would he explain to the French that the man with whom he had such a close relationship had to go, just at the time when he emerged out of Macron's shadow with his own profile and a popularity greater than that of the president? As mayor of Le Havre, Philippe could become a serious contender against Macron in 2022. Macron himself knows this risk well. In 2017 he displaced François Hollande, whom he had served as a minister before. 

But, if Philippe were to stay as prime minister, it could feed a narrative that Macron is too weak to allow his popular prime minister to go. This seems to be a dilemma one can only find in French politics. To avoid those high-risk narratives and a political backlash, Macron's team is looking for a more solid case for Philippe's departure.

We can think of one good reason, which is that Philippe may not be the right man for Macron's new agenda, with his conservative background and known resistance to Macron's citizen initiatives. Without knowing the new agenda it is hard to find a robust case for Philippe's departure. Today, the two men will meet, likely to find more clarity about Philippe's future as prime minister. 

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June 29, 2020

Sir Humphrey, R.I.P.

There are two interesting recent trends in current UK politics. The first and most important is the reform in the UK civil service. This is the Johnson administration's biggest project after Brexit. It kicked off yesterday with the forced resignation of Sir Mark Sedwell, who held the joint positions of cabinet secretary and national security adviser. David Frost, the Brexit negotiator, will take on the latter role but will remain focused on the Brexit talks for the time being.

If you want to know why Johnson was so desperate to cling on to Dominic Cummings, this is why: Cummings is the mastermind behind the project to make the civil service Brexit-friendly. Downing Street perceives the civil service as a snake pit full of remainers who undermine the government, especially the government's policies on Brexit. The concerted media campaign against Cummings took place, at least in part, for that same reason. His departure would have weakened Johnson, and might have frustrated this important project. 

Civil service reform is about power. The fictional Sir Humphrey, the mastermind civil servant from the 1980s series Yes Minister, was no doubt a parody, though we have personally met a senior civil servant who fashioned himself after Sir Humphrey. But there can be no doubt that the civil service was highly unenthusiastic about Brexit. An operationally more streamlined civil service sounds like an excerpt from a management manual. But it means that Downing Street is in direct control, and makes it less likely that the civil service grows a mind of its own. It would mark the end of the long-standing tradition of a politically neutral civil service. 

The Telegraph reports this morning that Simon Case, Johnson's permanent secretary, is the front-runner to succeed Sir Mark as cabinet secretary, the chief civil servant. Case was the former private secretary of Prince William. Both Frost and Case are among Johnson's closest allies.

The second trend to note in UK politics is the revival of the Labour Party under its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer. We are not so much interested in the polls, which are quite favourable for him personally though not yet for his party. The way he has dealt with antisemitism and established his authority over the party is admirable. So is his forensic performance at the weekly prime minister's questions. The revival of the Labour Party has a very long way to go. But, starting from December 2019, Starmer got most things right. He still has the time to get his party back into shape, as there won't be elections for another four years and a half.

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