Making the most of the Obama backlash

The Republican Party is celebrating success after two of its members won House seats in New York and

The Republicans are having a moment. And that's despite the fracas over Monday's presidential debate - when the would be candidates seemed intent on ripping shreds out of front runner Rick Perry.

Today the GOP must surely be popping open the champagne, after trouncing Democrats in not one, but two special elections for the US House of Representatives.

The Republicans had expected a win in the largely rural district in Nevada -- but not the size of the win, which was a landslide. And it's a state that's seen as key to Barack Obama's re-election hopes. And the Democrats suffered a rare defeat in one of their heartlands, New York -- as retired television executive Bob Turner triumphed in the seat formerly held by Anthony Weiner, forced out over a Twitter sex scandal.

Before the vote, House Speaker John Boehner had declared "This is not a district that Republicans have any right to believe that we can win" - in fact, it's the first Democratic loss in Queens or Brooklyn in a generation. Their 70 year-old candidate, whose career highlight was creating the Jerry Springer show, ran for the same seat two years ago, in his first electoral foray, and came a distant second to Weiner. This time, though, it was different: a triumphant Turner telling supporters "We're ready to say, Mr President, we are on the wrong track".

Although the more measured commentators are cautioning against a rush to judgement, these twin defeats are inevitably being interpreted as a backlash against President Obama, among voters fearful about the state of the economy, and sceptical about his leadership.

In New York, the figures could hardly be starker: the President's approval rating was a meagre 30 per cent -- and although the Democrats began with a financial advantage, pro-Republican groups poured cash and energy into their campaign, focusing on the decision to legalise gay marriage, a policy deeply unpopular with the seat's large population of Orthodox Jews.

But is it really possible to use special election results as a prediction of what might happen to Democrats across the country next year? Possibly not. Essentially they're snapshots of the popular mood, rather than reliable indications of a trend, and as Nate Silver, from the five-thirty-eight blog, warns -- "special elections are always difficult - they are low turnout, high intensity races."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Steve Israel was keen to play down the New York result, insisting they were "not reflective of what will happen in November 2012 when Democratic challengers run against Republican incumbents who voted to end Medicare and cut Social Security while protecting tax loopholes for big corporations and the ultra wealthy."

But according to Politico, the mood in a conference call among top campaign aides last night, was 'awful', quoting a source who said that "people feel betrayed, disappointed, furious, disgusted, hopeless". No punches pulled there, then.

On the record, House democratic whip Steny Hoyer was slightly more measured: "Do I think it's an overall statement on the president alone? No. Do I think it will be interpreted as being a statement on Obama? That's probably correct." And in more bad news for the party - labour unions were pretty much disengaged from the race, even in this heavily blue-collar district. Mirror that on a national scale, and the party really would be in trouble.

There's a glimpse of blue sky though, for worried Democrats: Obama's new jobs act - and the prospect of a reinvigorated President with a coherent message to sell. New York Rep Eliot Engel welcomed the reappearance of "the feisty Barack Obama, the one that we knew and loved and voted for in 2008".

The party will be hoping voters will start thinking likewise, and that the snapshot revealed in last night's special elections can be eclipsed by the political campaign ahead.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.