Hewson's View: Political messes around the world

Still leader: Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech outside 10 Downing Street in London on Wednesday after surviving a no-confidence vote by Tory MPs. Photo: Matt Dunham
Still leader: Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech outside 10 Downing Street in London on Wednesday after surviving a no-confidence vote by Tory MPs. Photo: Matt Dunham

Politics in several major countries has become even messier with crises in the UK over May’s handling of Brexit, in France with Macron versus the gilets jaunes movement, in Germany with the transition from Merkel probably to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and, of course, in the US, where Trump continues to disrupt, rather than govern, mostly out of control, without consistent direction.

Each of these political leaders is in very challenging circumstances, with limited capacity to define and control a clear pathway forward, such that the ultimate outcomes are very difficult to predict.

Each is also attempting to resolve their particular circumstances, against the background of significant, and mounting, global and domestic, economic challenges, especially with growth slowing, and with a host of other geo-political tensions.

With now some two-and-a-half years having passed since the referendum, and only about three months to go to exit date, it is hard to imagine how Theresa May could still be no closer to an effective, and broadly acceptable, deal. As expected at the beginning, the Europeans have taken a very hard line, wanting to avoid, at all costs, further fragmentation of the European model.

May’s initial mistake was to go to an early election, soon after taking over from Cameron, the initiator of the unnecessary referendum, claiming the need to get about a 100-seat majority to be in a strong position to negotiate with the Europeans, only to fail and end up in minority government. Her “deal” has neither the support of her Party, nor the support of the British Parliament, and she has spent several days this week in the humiliating attempt to get even a cosmetically “more favourable” deal out of the Europeans, only to be sent packing, to return home to a confidence vote.

 Even though May will remain leader for now, at least through to the exit, what would come next is very hard to predict, but main options are still perhaps an early election, or another referendum, or a “hard Brexit” – but the latter will now still require parliamentary approval.

Macron was always too good to be true – an ex Socialist minister suddenly remaking himself as a populist “messiah”. Unable to match those initial expectations, stumbling from one issue to the next, his popularity has collapsed to single digits in just about 18 months, his plight coming to a head with “yellow vest” marches/riots, initially over a proposed fuel tax, but more recently over broader cost of living issues.  Again, how this all will end is very difficult to predict – his attempts to rethink the tax and promises to address the cost of living were generally rejected as inadequate.

Although Merkel was previously the most successful of all European, indeed most global, leaders, her demise has been inevitable since the collapse in the support for her party, and that of her then coalition partner, in the election held September last year. She then took months to cobble together a new, but unsustainable, coalition, ultimately still proving unable to govern. Her loss of support was mostly due to her “European view”, and her willingness to absorb a flood of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, as many of her European neighbours were restricting their intake, or indeed closing their borders. Although her successor has been identified, Germany is still some way from restoring a stable government.

And then there is Trump, who thrives on creating chaos, and on being disruptive, both in the US and globally. He has pulled out of, or undermined, a host of global trade, security and environmental arrangements; initiated a “trade war” (mostly with China); given an unsustainable “sugar hit” to the US economy; and recently lost control of the US House of Congress.

Macron was always too good to be true – an ex Socialist minister suddenly remaking himself as a populist 'messiah'.

While he has been able to secure, so far, a consistent support base, 2019 will be a torrid year for Trump, as the Democrats issue and pursue at least 100 subpoenas about him, his personal and business finances, and his administration. A Presidential election year, 2020 could be really tough for the US and for Trump, if he hasn’t already been impeached, especially if the US economy slides into recession.

Of course, we can’t throw stones, having changed Prime Ministers six times in 11 years, but we should be very concerned on the likely impact of these political messes on global economic and political stability. 

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.