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July 22, 2019

Will Johnson go for elections?

Along with the Times journalist Matthew Paris, we belong to a tiny minority of observers who believe that Boris Johnson may well trigger immediate elections - or at least an elections at some point during the autumn. Nobody can be sure what’s going on in Johnson’s mind. Maybe all he cares about is not to go down in history as the country’s shortest-lived prime minister. But there are clear strategic advantages for him to jump, not least the Conservatives' rapidly-vanishing majority in the House of Commons. That said, we must caution ourselves against over-gaming this. UK politics over the last four years is full of examples of poor strategic choices. 

The latest piece of information that could weigh in favour of early elections is a YouGov poll published in the Times, showing a dramatic fall in Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity among Labour Party members. Two fifths want him to stand down before the elections. If Johnson were to trigger an election immediately, he could profit from Corbyn's unpopularity. If he waited, and mismanaged Brexit, Johnson might confront a new, more popular Labour leader.

Johnson is due to take office on Wednesday. He will have until Friday to organise a Commons vote in favour of an election, or else wait until Parliament reconvenes after the summer break on September 3.

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July 22, 2019

How will von der Leyen handle the east?

It is becoming increasingly apparent that managing the relationship with Budapest and Warsaw will be the most challenging task to face Ursula von der Leyen in the weeks until the full Commission's final confirmation vote. 

EU member states from the former Eastern bloc often argue that they are being subjected to tougher scrutiny and standards than old EU members. This is not far-fetched. The fact is that the EU never acted when Italy’s then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi reneged on the undertaking to divest from his media holdings to ensure pluralism. Nor has the EU involved itself until now in large-scale corruption scandals extending into political parties, or in sub-standard detention practices, unless they occurred in central or eastern Europe. There has also been anger in a number of newer member states that the dire social impact of the eurozone crisis on countries like Spain and Greece became an issue of public concern and political controversy, whereas worse social conditions in the east during two decades of economic transformation went largely unnoticed.

The trouble for von der Leyen is that any conciliatory message from her, expressing concern about these disparities, runs the risk of be seen as going soft on illiberal governments to whom she owes her job. She won her own election with the votes of Viktor Orbán's Fidesz and of Poland’s PiS. We wrote after her election that this was the worst possible combination for the EU - a narrow election victory that von der Leyen owes entirely to the support of populist parties. The question naturally arises whether she is beholden to them.

Under normal circumstances the von der Leyen Commission, with Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager as vice-presidents appointed as part of a deal, should easily obtain a pro-EU majority in the EP. But von der Leyen’s handling of the relationship with Orbán and the Polish government, and the potentially controversial names that Poland and Hungary may put forward for the Commission, will be carefully monitored in the EP. A serious misstep would be enough to ignite a wildfire.

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