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15 March 2017

Brexit has a reputation problem

The European politicians who Britain needs to persuade equate EU withdrawal with Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump.

By Stephen Bush

Voting is underway in the Netherlands as Dutch voters decide the make-up of the House of Representatives.

Who’ll win? Well, rather like the consequences of the French Revolution, it’s a little early to say. The Netherlands has the most proportional voting system in the world, so the vote will be the prelude to coalition negotiations, which could take months.

But it’s not too early to declare some losers. The Dutch Labour party is expected to take a pasting. Geert Wilders’s far-right Freedom Party may finish front of the pack but equally he could end up as far back as fifth place, as his party performs its customary feat of leading in the polls but falling back over the short campaign as voters turn to the question of who they really want in charge.

The extreme likelihood is that Mark Rutte, nominally a centre-right liberal but who has adopted many of the positions of the right in order to stave off Wilders’ challenge, will remain as PM under a coalition of various parties.

Which, if Emmanuel Macron can hold on to his position in the polls and defeats Marine Le Pen in the French elections will lead some people to declare that the story of 2017 is the fightback against the nativist tide of Donald Trump and Brexit that was the “story of 2016”.

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There are a couple of problems with that narrative, not least that the differences between Trump and Brexit outweigh the similarities.

But the bigger problem is this: if the every-vote-counts rule of the referendum had applied in the American presidential election, Hillary Clinton would be president and we’d all be talking about how the “story of 2016” was that the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany were all led by centre-right women who had done it while ignoring many of the usual rules of the boys’ club. If the United Kingdom had the demographics of the United States, we’d still be in the European Union instead of on the brink of leaving it. And if the Dutch had the British electoral system, then the dissolution of the traditional parties of the centre-right and centre-left would at the least be severely slowed and might not have happened at all.

While there are some wider patterns that do hold worldwide and in Europe especially – that the centre-left is in crisis almost everywhere and that the divide between those with and without degrees is becoming more politically and economically acute – for most of the time, the differences matter as much as the similarities.

But there is an interesting straw in the wind in terms of the Brexit talks. One of the successes of Vote Leave was making Brexit into a programme of the respectable centre-right rather than that of fringe libertarians like Dan Hannan or far-right cranks like Nigel Farage.

The reputational failure of the British government and the Brexit elite afterwards is clear in the fact that it’s not just British shorthand to equate Marine Le Pen, the leader of a party founded by people who quite literally supported the Vichy regime in France, with Britain’s Out vote.

It’s not merely over-excited Tory backbenchers who think there is a commonality between Trump and Brexit. It is also a view held by some of the European politicians who Britain needs to persuade are at more risk of suffering economic damage from a bad Brexit than they are of political contagion from a good one.

And that’s more important than the question of who notionally “wins” the Dutch elections today.