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September 09, 2019

Chances of no-deal are rising and rising

Boris Johnson will not break the law and go to jail. We note there is a lot of hyperventilating commentary out there that misses the essential point. He will circumvent the law. And it looks like he is ready to involve the EU in this. We have been arguing for a while that Remainers are somewhat optimistic about their ability to force an extension. It is the EU, not the UK parliament or a UK court, that has the final decision. And each member state has a veto.

The Daily Telegraph has a story this morning that Johnson is considering writing two letters - one that follows the formal instruction to ask for a three-month extension, and another saying that the government is not planning to meet the EU’s conditions. We doubt very much that the EU would extend based on such a request, especially if the UK does not fulfil the formal commitments of an extension agreed at the April European Council: to point to a political way forward. The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said yesterday that France is presently minded to veto. The French narrative is based on lack of progress in the negotiations. This only goes to show that active non-cooperation is a viable strategy for Johnson. Imagine the EU’s response if he threatened to veto every decision in the European Council.

The Guardian ended its story with the remark that France will in the end not veto because Emmanuel Macron does not want to be blamed for a no-deal Brexit. We find that astonishing. Who on earth would blame Macron for Brexit?

Our understanding is that Johnson and his team are pressing ahead relentlessly, despite the largely-negative media commentary. Yesterday he lost Amber Rudd as works and pensions secretary. He may lose a few more ministers. The more he loses, the stronger his position becomes internally. At the end of a week described by the media as disastrous, the Tories' poll rating went up. A YouGov poll has the Tories up by 10pp. We disagree with the evolving media consensus about Dominic Cummings. His disruption is working politically. Media commentators should resist the temptation to overestimate their influence. We note the same tendency in continental newspapers whose outrage is fuelled further by the sudden realisation that Brexit may actually happen.

We would, however, not rule out a three-month extension if coupled with an election - and only if there is no legal way out. It has been the game of Remainers to extend in order to make time for a second referendum, and that would be the scenario if Labour came to power. Would there be a majority in the UK parliament to revoke Brexit at the last minute? We doubt that MPs will be so brave as they would have to confront their electorates shortly afterwards. Also consider that, the more radical the Tories are, the more Nigel Farage will co-operate. There only has to be a single pro-Brexit candidate on every constituency ticket against a multitude of pro-Remain candidates.

We also hear reports that Johnson is ready to involve the Supreme Court, which may struggle to rule on the matter in time. The second half of October could be very messy indeed. We would not rule out a reluctant extension request, drawn up by a UK civil servant on behalf of the government. Other stories suggest that the fall-back position is for Johnson to resign. The Queen might then ask Jeremy Corbyn, as the official leader of the opposition, to form a government. Or someone like Kenneth Clarke. We think there are risks associated with this course of action. Never underestimate the power of a prime minister, even a caretaker, to set the agenda. Active non-compliance within the law seems to us Johnson's better option.

What are the best strategies for the opposition? We argued before that Jeremy Corbyn’s best shot would be to agree to an early election. This is another point where we disagree with the media consensus. The parliament will vote tonight on the government's second request to bring about an election in October.  After last week’s pact by opposition parties, this request is set to be rejected again. Once the vote is cast, we expect the government to prorogue parliament today. Johnson will have five clear weeks, unimpeded by parliament, to set the agenda. 

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September 09, 2019

Resist the beginnings

There is a German saying which literately translates as "resist the beginnings". Its origin is Latin, but in its modern guise it is mostly used to warn of early phases of totalitarian infiltration. 

It was this phrase that sprang to our mind when we read about the first coalition between CDU and AfD at local level. It happened in the aptly named town of Frankenstein in the south-western state of Rhineland-Palatinate. It is not really a coalition, but a minority tie-up of only two people, a husband-and-wife team. But it received national media attention because it is the first of its kind. It goes against CDU policy, and the party is now trying to expel the offending local councillor. She promises to resist.

So, is this the beginning of a trend? Or just a case of tragedy turning to farce, not to be taken seriously? We don’t know. Under leaders from Adenauer to Kohl, the party managed to straddle most of the entire conservative spectrum. Angela Merkel, a liberal protestant from the North East, lost the conservatives. Conservatism is as much a force in Germany as it is in England - anti-European, anti-immigration, pro-US, pro-free-market. In the past the FDP managed to reach parts of the conservative spectrum the CDU did not reach. But today the FDP is weak. The AfD has absorbed some conservatives, but is struggling with extremists, as its Bundestag leader Alexander Gauland admitted in an FAZ interview. CDU and AfD will not be ready for coalitions for a long time. But the arithmetic of a parliament with six or seven parties will make such an alliance very likely in the long run.

Without the AfD, the CDU/CSU will never have enough votes to form a coalition with the FDP on its own. The time of two-party coalitions is drawing to a close. Even CDU/CSU and SPD no longer have a majority between them in the polls. If the CDU/CSU wanted to lead a coalition in the future, they would always be dependent on the SPD or the Greens. There will come a time when it could make sense for the CDU/CSU to opt for a coalition of the right. That time is not imminent. But the AfD has become a permanent fixture in the German political scene, and in our view the AfD is also likely to usurp the Left Party. The SPD resisted coalitions with the Left Party, very much to its own detriment. The Merkel CDU has also resisted the AfD. But we are not sure that the CDU will stay so principled in the future.

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