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31 December 2016

Four predictions for politics in 2017

Our special correspondent looks ahead.

By Stephen Bush

Jeremy Corbyn will remain as leader

Jeremy Corbyn started the year in a position that was stronger than it appeared, something the doomed attempt to remove him proved.

Now he looks unassailable, which probably slightly overstates his strength.

Party members are worried by what they see as the party’s right-turn on immigration, and those worries will grow more acute if the pattern of Richmond and Sleaford – where the party suffered an exodus of Leave-backing voters to the right and of Remain-backing voters to the Liberal Democrats – continues in by-elections and elections next year. There is also growing concern about what is seen as the Labour leadership’s frequent silence and inability to make news.

Neither of these worries will cohere into viable opposition to Corbyn, however. It’s easy to imagine a candidate who could displace Corbyn: pro-European, pro-immigration and popular in the country at large. But there lies the problem: no such candidate exists in the parliamentary Labour party. The leadership is Corbyn’s as long as he wants it.

If there is an early election, it won’t be at a time of Theresa May’s choosing

Next year will continue to be marked by questions of an early election. One reason being that the government has been forced to abandon or delay key planks of its agenda already, thanks to its wafer-thin majority – but is also in possession of a double-digit lead in the opinion polls.

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An obstacle to such analyses is the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which means that the Prime Minister cannot secure an early election without either a two-thirds majority in the Commons or her government losing a vote of confidence. At that point, if a new government cannot secure a vote of confidence in itself, there is an election.

Theoretically, the government could put forward a motion of confidence and instruct its MPs to abstain and, seeing as it is unlikely that the opposition parties would declare their confidence in May’s leadership, secure an early election that way.

There are some problems with that approach though – as the Institute for Government’s Cath Haddon explains, it’s not at all clear who the Prime Minister would be in the intervening 14 days – would it still be Theresa May? Someone else from within her party? Or Jeremy Corbyn? 

All of those ambiguities mean that I think it is highly unlikely that May will call an early election out of choice. But the same arguments for calling one at a time of her choosing are all the arguments that may force her hand. So while I don’t rule out an election next year, if there is one, it will be as much of a shock to May as to everyone else.

Angela Merkel will continue as Chancellor, but her power will be diminished

Angela Merkel’s standing in Britain is odd. In regular times, she’d be seen as a fairly dull centre-right politician. But the leftwing achievements of the SPD, her coalition partner from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013, mean that she is seen as cuddlier than she is, while her decision to allow a million refugees into Germany has made her a hate figure on the uglier parts of the right.

That means her success in the German elections next year has become a proxy war among Britain’s elites, with the success of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) a subject for celebration among Britain’s own nativists.

The reality, as I’ve written before, is that what will decide Merkel’s future is how well the parties of the left – the Social Democrats, the leftist Die Linke and the Greens – do. If they can cobble together a working coalition, they will likely force her out. Far more likely – unless Martin Schulz can give the Social Democrats an unexpected boost – is a more fractious repeat of the coalition of left and right that she has run since 2013.

Barring a terrorist attack, Marine Le Pen won’t win

We’ve known since early 2013 that Marine Le Pen, the fascist candidate for the French presidency, had a strong chance of winning the first round of the presidential elections and a puncher’s chance of winning the second. (Under the rules of the French system, unless a candidate secures more than half of the vote in the first round, the top two go through to the run-off.)

But the victories for Donald Trump and Brexit – plus the fact that, as far as Britain’s Brexit deal is concerned, elections on the continent matter to the United Kingdom more than ever – mean that here in Britain, people are waking up to the possibility that Le Pen could be France’s next president.

I’m not convinced that she will. For all the far right is gaining from sharing best practice between its activists, it is losing through the association with extremists abroad. Most of the four million people who voted for Ukip detest Donald Trump, and that goes even more so for the perhaps three to four million voters who didn’t vote Ukip in 2015 but could potentially be persuaded to do so in the future. Don’t forget that allies of Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate in Austria, believe the association with the anti-EU politics of Nigel Farage hurt their candidate.

The comparison between Le Pen and her cheerleaders abroad risks hurting her. But more important than that is that the victories of Trump and Brexit – and I should emphasise that the differences between Brexit and Trump are more important than the similarities, in my view – both ran with the grain of their respective political cultures. In the case of Vote Leave, euroscepticism is part of the warp and weft of British politics, just as white reactionary politics are part of the story of American politics.

It’s worth noting that while the Brexit vote, Trump’s victory and Matteo Renzi’s defeat in the Italian referendum were cheered by Le Pen, they were all the work of forces that were to her left. One of Vote Leave’s successes was largely in keeping Nigel Farage away from the cameras, Trump hijacked the party of the centre-right (albeit in the disturbingly right-wing context of American politics), and Renzi’s defeat was an alliance of much of the political spectrum against his government and him personally.

Le Pen’s assault on the French presidency has two problems. First, she has not hijacked a centre-right organisation, and she is pushing against, rather than towards, the cultural headwinds of French politics. There is a long tradition of voting against the anti-system parties in French politics, and my expectation is that the left and the centre will lend their votes to keep Le Pen out again in 2017.

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