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August 02, 2019

A useful object lesson of what can go wrong for Johnson

Eurointelligence will publish for another week until our scheduled annual holiday which starts on Monday, 12 August. We are already noticing a drop-off in the volume of European news as governments, central banks and European institutions start their holidays. We will therefore use any arising news gaps next week for some more reflective pieces.

The one country with an ongoing hyper-active political agenda is the UK. Last night’s by-election in the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire came up with a predicted result - a victory of the LibDems. 

The result flies in the face of some lazy assumptions that have recently gained ground. We notice in particular that more and more political observers are trying to figure out Johnson’s strategy. The consensus seems to be veering towards the one we dismissed yesterday: that Dominic Cummings, Johnson's de facto chief of staff, is trying to cause an accident in parliament in order to force elections. 

How such a strategy can backfire was amply demonstrated last night in Brecon and Radnorshire. If you added the Tory and Brexit party votes together, there would have been a Tory majority. But the 3000 Brexit Party votes in the constituency frustrated the Tory strategy. What happened is the very opposite of the recent nationwide polling trend: the pro-Remain Left united; and the pro-Leave right split. 

This is telling us that we are still at a tipping point, which could swing the game decisively in one direction and then suddenly in another, very much like the weather. Don’t think for a minute that you have figured out the strategy - because you haven’t. And, even if there were a strategy today, it might not be the strategy next month. And if it is still the strategy next month, it is far from clear that it can work.

In general, it is a mistake to extrapolate single constituency polls to a nationwide trend. This by-election was triggered after the sitting Tory MP got caught in an expenses scam, which produced an anti-incumbent swing that might be less strong elsewhere. What appears to have happened in Brecon and Radnorshire is that the LibDems picked up Tory voters on the left, and the Brexit Party picked up Tory voters on the right. There was no Boris effect - in contrast to what national polls suggest. 

We see this election not so much as a pointer of what will happen in a general election, but as a blueprint of what could go wrong. If it goes wrong for Johnson, then we will end up with lots of results like yesterday's. 

We think that the strategy of the Johnson administration is not yet set in stone, but there are a couple of fixed points that have not changed. We see only three election scenarios that might work for Johnson: a Brexit-delivery election before October 31, say on October 17 or 24; a no-deal Brexit with elections either on Brexit day itself the week after; or the sequence of a deal, followed by a then-necessary technical extension, and ultimately elections. 

We remain as doubtful as ever that parliament can take no deal off the table. Those who use that or similar expressions never tell us how. We believe that a government hell-bent on a no-deal Brexit has several avenues open to frustrate an extension request; and we don’t think there are parliamentary majorities in favour of outright revocation.

Johnson had a good start, but he faces the same political realities as his predecessor. The European Research Group said yesterday it would vote against the withdrawal treaty even with the Irish backstop removed. One of its leading members said 60 MPs would vote against a withdrawal agreement under any circumstances. That would be larger than the number of Labour MPs Johnson can hope to pick up. A withdrawal deal strategy would require a broad coalition in the House of Commons, which we don’t see at this point. Johnson could offer a short Brexit extension and a post-Brexit election after the ratification of the deal. A post-Brexit election might suit both leaders. Johnson can claim to have delivered Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn avoids the second referendum issue, and can focus on the issues that interest him. But we don’t think that the Labour Party would let him.

We consider the path in the next month as wide open - wider than the consensus believes. We agree with Ian Leslie’s assessment in the New Statesman that Cummings is a man for the big sweep strategies, not necessarily the details of policy. He wants to defeat both Nigel Farage and the Remainers. The delivery of Brexit is at the top of his agenda. If the government has the technical means to deliver a no-deal, why should it not do it? 

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August 02, 2019

Maréchal - a rising star on the French right?

Officially Marion Maréchal is no longer in politics. Leaving the Rassemblement National to her aunt Marine Le Pen, she concentrates her attention on Issep, the finishing school she founded in 2018.

From time to time, though, she comes back into the public arena to shake up the political discourse and nourish rumours about her political future. She did so in the US last year when she addressed the conservative political action conference, and s doing it this year in France with a bid to unite the right.

Maréchal is shaping up her political profile as a liberal conservative, looking for support among the middle and upper classes. This is in contrast to her aunt, who built up her support from the working classes in competition with the far left. Inspired by her experience in the US, Maréchal is now seeking to organise a convention similar to CPAC this autumn. She is fishing in the same pond as Les Républicains, targeting the catholic and conservative bourgeoisie. But she is a classic liberal too, as the CPAM organiser described her. One of the slogans Maréchal's team is working on is "more taxation at the border, less taxes at home".

But France is not the US. A classic liberal conservative will not fly with the French as well as it does in the US, warns Jean-Yves Camus, an expert in populism associated with the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. Even if the American example is inspiring, the chances of creating a French version of Trump's success are low. Trump won on a radicalisation of the middle classes, and could count on an electorate that had a conservative majority. This is not the case in France. 

All eyes are now on what will come out of Maréchal's efforts to get leading figures of the right under one tent, and whether it will have any lasting effect. 

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August 02, 2019

Could Steve re-ignite the gilets jaunes?

The stand/off between gilets jaunes and Emmanuel Macron may be over, but the reactions to the unfortunate death of Steve as a potential victim of a police intervention clearly show that protests can easily flare up again. Any gathering for Steve in Nantes is forbidden this weekend, as the prefect is keen to prevent violent clashes. This could backfire, too. Macron for once is not the one in the shooting line. As he is on holiday, it is his prime minister and interior minister who are taking the first wave of anger.

The set-up may have changed but the substance has not. The gilets jaunes no longer congregate every Saturday. The €17bn in measures Macron announced in response after the grand débat certainly helped to take off some of the pressure. But the movement lost steam all by itself, fractured and tired. This is exactly the reason why it could easily come up again, warns Olivier Auguste. None of the government's measures had a massive effect to calm down the demonstrators. The anger is still simmering in the system, and could come up again on any pretext. 

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