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What power plays in UK and Europe tell us about the new political order

(Getty Images) - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Macron’s election raises the stakes in the governing game

Beneath the flight path into Heathrow airport at Kew Gardens in West London stands an ancient tree called Turner’s Oak. Planted by a nurseryman of that name in 1798 – just as Napoleon Bonaparte, ten years younger than Emmanuel Macron, edged towards an even more audacious seizure of power in France – it was uprooted during Hurricane Fish in 1987. Now here’s the funny thing. When it dropped back on the same spot, albeit at a slight angle, Turner’s Oak thrived as it had not done for years. Even movement of a few inches had cured its compacted soil problem.

That’s how reformist politics are meant to work. They foster mistrust of the superficial glamour of revolutionary rhetoric, the eagerness of amateur woodcutters to drag Turner’s decayed timber off to the sawmill and turn it into the framework for a new house they haven’t yet designed. Nowadays reformers sometimes have to remind voters that the fast-talking woodcutter and his tax-shy friends own the sawmill, building site and brickworks. Suspicious, eh!

Reformist politics promise more than they sensibly should do too. Listen to Macron’s ‘New Dawn’ speech – shades of Blair in 1997? – outside the Louvre on Sunday night, offering reassurance to France about everything in a calm, sober, Obama-ish way. Security for the economy, a bright future of the European Union (cue Ode to Joy) and the unburnished honour of France’s place (‘Its vital interests, its image’) in the world, liberty, fraternity (‘Don’t boo Le Pen voters’) and HOPE. In these troubled times it is a more sensible emphasis than egalite. No wonder voters in neglected departments – including his native Amiens, just off the Paris-Calais road – sound sceptical. ‘We’ll find out soon if he’s a liar like the rest of them,’ said one.

But Macron’s decisive victory over Marine Le Pen was a victory for reformist politics and the Turner’s Oak theory all the same. It’s only a breathing space, but a valuable one, as the relief in Angela Merkel’s voice and on dizzy financial markets showed. It wasn’t the only change-and-renewal evidence we could pick from the rubble of last weekend’s ballot counting. On the British side of La Manche, Theresa (‘cap those energy prices’) May’s Conservative candidates in the local elections pushed back Labour in urban strongholds they haven’t held for years, in some places not since Ted Heath was in his grumpy prime.

Of course Thursday’s outcome was all mixed up with May’s Brexit general election offensive on June 8 when she hopes to take Labour seats in Wales, the Midlands and northern England. But there was plenty of evidence that diligent voters focus last week was where it should have been, on local issues. Defeat is the price accountable politicians have to pay for bad leadership (national or local), bad leadership on school places or traffic jams, for complacency and/or irrelevance. It’s only three years since UKIP relished in its victory at the European elections, edging out Labour with 24 seats and 26.6% of the vote, the first time it had won a national ballot. On Thursday it lost all the seats it was trying to defend and fell back to a barely relevant 5% share of the poll.

Much as Madame Le Pen successfully courted some EU-rejecting communists as well as conservative pro-Fillon Catholics in France’s second round ballot, May’s Hard Brexit talk must have provided background encouragement to disaffected voters. Some of them will have been ex-Labour, people who had drifted off to Nigel Farage’s tent or to the more emollient Lib Dems whose hopes for a strong pro-EU recovery also fell short. More than ever, non-tribal or de-aligned floating voters, freed of old class loyalties, shop around these days. Data crunchers in social media – take a bow, Facebook, Twitter, and publicity-coy Cambridge Analytica – are getting better by the day at targeting Mixed-Up Man and Wavering Woman to tell them what they want to hear. Obama, Trump, Brexit, Macron, Tesco, they’re all at it. So is Lynton ‘Dog Whistle’ Crosby, as June 8 looms. As with energy pricing, voters and regulators struggle to catch up with cutting edge technology. It is important for pluralist politics that they do.

But UKIP’s collapse also serves to remind those who believed everything they read on the tin – did MEP Farage believe it? Probably not – that what rapidly expands can also deflate just as quickly. In their heyday nothing angered UKIP activists, many of them decent, well-meaning people, more than to be told they were part of a campaign, not a real party, a one-issue campaign too. Time and again the Kippers backroom team could barely manage to put together a half-coherent manifesto on wider policies that Leader Farage wasn’t prepared to disown the moment he discovered populism can sometimes turn into unpopulism. Privatise the NHS? Not me, chums.

Seriousness is what distinguishes UKIP from that other single-issue-led party-cum-campaign. The Greens’ wider policies, popular or derided, are evidence-based and strong enough not to collapse under sustained attacks from climate-change sceptics, many of them (it just so happens) also Brexiteers. Alas, the direction of environment policy – rendered so uncertain in Donald Trump’s zig-zag White House – is another likely casualty (yet again) of a Brexit-dominated UK election. It is one in which the May government seeks to pander (repeal those bans on grammar schools and fox-hunting!) not to challenge, while the Labour opposition seems more concerned to secure its party base than govern the state.

Merkel, May, now Macron, the Three Ms are all serious about governing, though only the German chancellor, reluctantly seeking a fourth term at almost 63, has yet had much experience of actually doing so. With respect to voters on the left who fear May cannibalises UKIP language in a lurch towards fascism and – on the free market right – shudder that her emerging industrial strategy is leading to corporatism, intervention and over-regulation, they’re wrong. May is a hand-to-mouth, provincial conservative, not a Big Picture politician. Reports that her policy brain, Nick Timothy has been talking to Labour’s David Miliband and Lord Maurice ‘Blue Labour’ Glasman may just be a tactical PR stunt, but otherwise point to pragmatism.

Despite evident differences (remember May was a Remainer until June 24) all Three Ms represent mainstream continuity of Turner’s Oak variety much more than they do the insurgent, authoritarian nationalists taking power elsewhere. There has even been some evidence, admittedly contradictory, that President Trump may be in the process of sacking Candidate Trump and joining the mainstream right. There again, he has just sacked his FBI Director and offered a classic fake news justification for doing so.

If politics is a mixture of leadership and credible policy, of men and measures – women too, Theresa – that combine to inspire a transient majority then solid judgment and mere competence in running things as well as changing them are part of that mix. So is the need for renewal through change at the ballot box. Stand back from partisan passion and it’s a good thing that Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP finally faced a fresh challenge after nine years in power at Holyrood and a better record at harrying Westminster over independence than at delivering key services to Scottish voters. Yes, its first preference votes went up to 610,454 from 503,233 in 2012, but its share of the vote remained 32% because the resurgent Tories gained 12% on 2012’s results, their 25% share pushing battered Labour into third place on 20% (Lib Dems on 6.8%, Greens on 4.1%).

In more than doubling her tally of seats (276) Scots Tory leader, Ruth Davidson – women and measures – shows she can do business with the voters. By the same token Labour’s decades-long grip on Glasgow City Council has finally been broken, eight seats behind the SNP on Thursday night. Among its many municipal achievements, Labour in Glasgow (which voted Yes to independence) has also been a byword for all sorts of failures which the fiery Janey Buchan, Glasgow Labour MEP, would have lovingly itemised if she’d ever got around to writing her threatened memoirs. The book was going to be called ‘Some Shits I have Known’, she used to warn her enemies. If she had believed in heaven the atheist Buchan would be smiling down now (she was also a left-wing eurosceptic).

The cycle is different in Labour-governed Wales, but the pattern is recognisably similar. At a time when an incumbent government in Westminster ought to be losing ground, local perspectives and a dash of Brexit trumped London to ensure a Tory surge against the incumbent (since 1999) regime in Cardiff instead.

The latest poll for ITV puts Welsh Tories on 41% for June 8 – with the prospect of taking nine seats from Labour, which has recovered lost ground, but only to 35% (Plaid Cymru on 11%; Lib Dems 7%, UKIP on 4%).

Put England into the equation (although not everywhere voted) and BBC analysts projected a 38% to 27% lead for the Tories if Thursday’s results were to be repeated on June 8, 18% for the Lib Dems, 5% for UKIP, 12% for other parties, including Nationalists. But the results which should have got more attention than they did in the London-dominated media were surely the election of metro-mayors in England’s 2nd and 3rd cities.

Once Andy Burnham, a high profile ex-cabinet minister with local roots, decided his future lay other than with Corbynite Labour in the capital (at least for now?), Manchester always looked set to be his for the taking. The 20-year modernising partnership of Richard Leese (council leader) and Howard Bernstein (CEO) has done most of the hard work, won over wary outer boroughs and overtaken Birmingham – at least in Manchester’s own opinion – and also won that Northern Powerhouse devolution package from George Osborne. But Burnham campaigned on local (Jeremy Corbyn, who he?) issues, notably housing, and won 63% of the vote.

Far more significant in terms of the unfolding pattern of devolution in the over-centralised, post-imperial British state, was Andy Street’s win to become Greater Birmingham’s first metro-mayor. He came from outside (spending money unfairly before election limits kicked in, say critics) to defeat the paper favourite, Labour’s Sion Simon, ex-MP and ally of Corbyn’s estranged deputy, Tom Watson. Street (53) wore the blue rosette, but that is arguably a lesser detail in his CV. Like Burnham he is local (‘a proud Brummie boy’), like Ruth Davidson he is gay, like Emmanuel Macron he is a political first-timer in elective politics, like Donald Trump he is a successful businessman.

But, unlike the US President whose chequered business career is littered with vulgarity, excess and controversy, Street gave up what must be the most wholesome corporate job in Britain, as £800,000-a-year CEO of the John Lewis Partnership. He’s the one who supervised a 50% increase in gross sales, plus increases in both stores and online revenue in nine years at the helm, as many big retail stores struggled against the Amazon tide. Contrary to the widely-shared faith in tycoons around the world (no-nonsense generals are another popular stereotype) can-do businessmen often flop in politics: think Archie Norman, newly poached to head M&S, who disappeared from Westminster with little trace. John Lewis lifer Street (‘collective responsibility, sharing fairness’) may fail too. But he is full of ideas for his home town and a fan of the city’s greatest political son, Joseph Chamberlain, reformist mayor from 1873-76, later a Liberal-to-Tory cabinet grandee, a party splitter too. Theresa May’s bearded bagman, Nick Timothy, is another Chamberlain reformer from Birmingham.

So watch the West Midlands space. If able public officials can prove resolute, imaginative and adaptable in the challenging times which lie ahead on every scenario for Brexit, the UK may pull through in better shape. High profile big city bosses may even broaden and deepen the increasingly-shallow talent pool at Westminster, though Boris (where is he?) Johnson is still road-testing that theory close to destruction. Does it all presage a change in the party structure, as some keep suggesting is inevitable if opinion polls are right about the scale of Labour’s defeat? My hunch remains ‘no’, but that depends on what happens next.

Using the ‘men and matters’ matrix some voters are reporting that they see ‘Corbyn and Brexit’ as a winning combination, albeit a winning one for May. Persistent reports claim that, if heavily defeated but no worse than Ed Miliband’s 30.4% vote share in 2015, Corbyn will hang on to the leadership and purge the party machine of those disloyal to his policies (he cannot purge the voters). I still think such talk is bluff, the kind of thing leaders have to say until the moment that they don’t, even a leader whose election strategy and conduct is essentially defensive against the predicted May tide. Some of Labour’s declared policy ambitions are laudable (who could not want to tackle the rented housing crisis?), others foolish or self-defeating. But the Corbynite maths of tax-and-spend sink them all. The tree-grown theory of money rarely commands enough confidence. The hoped-for idea that the Tories would now be embroiled in a scandal over election expenses has been punctuated by the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) verdict on Wednesday. It was always a slender straw.

Apart from the sheer impropriety of May accusing the EU of interfering in Britain’s election at a time when foreign-based manipulation of social media is a hot issue in many countries – Clinton as well as Macron has a grievance – the practical weakness of the ‘interference’ thesis is that Brussels, Paris and Berlin cannot seriously imagine that their time would be better spent negotiating Brexit with a fragile Corbyn-led coalition? May’s ‘bloody difficult woman’ pose must irritate many, but the abrasive leak to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of the Downing St dinner seems to have sobered key players. It has been a better, calmer week in which Jean-Claude Juncker still speaks English. Chancellor Merkel even blamed the leak on ‘a babbling idiot’, not formally identified as Juncker’s bagman, Martin Selmayr.

That leaves the Macron enigma. Though still under its Charlie Hebdo state of emergency, France is not quite the basket case which Anglo-Saxon critics like to proclaim. But the new president needs to shake Turner’s Oak by tackling labour market rigidities, the flip-side of persistent high unemployment, getting a better grip on home-grown terrorism – 240 murders in barely two years – and bearing down on tax and spending, as the eurozone economy gently recovers. He must succeed if he is to keep the forces of extremism at bay and to persuade the Germans he can be trusted in trying to reform the eurozone’s unbalanced economies as well. At 39 to Merkel’s 63 he could be the coming man, as British leaders have again opted not to be, unless Mayor-elect Street has private plans.

As for President Macron’s impact on the tone and outcome of Brexit, we will have to be patient. Important though it is, in the age of assertive nationalism it is a second order problem to a committed European integrationist like Macron. Once he even called the Brexit vote ‘a crime’. Some advisers warn he will make life harder for May as a point of EU principle and of practice. France no more wants to pick up Britain’s vacated budget contributions than Germany or the Dutch.

Others say the high-flying technocrat will be rational and cool, keener to evolve a constructive ‘new relationship’ with its northern neighbour than to tear up the Le Touquet agreement on asylum seekers who congregate in towns that voted Le Pen. Theresa May’s combative political decision to stick by her long-failed promise to slash immigration without damaging the economy is both a threat and an opportunity to Macron. His election raises the stakes, but should also raise Europe’s game. May will have to raise hers.

Michael White is the election editor of The New European

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