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British Prime Minister Theresa May Says Her Cabinet Backs Draft 'Brexit' Agreement


After a marathon meeting at 10 Downing Street, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May announced that her cabinet is backing a controversial withdrawal agreement with the European Union.


THERESA MAY: This is a decisive step which enables us to move on and finalize the deal in the days ahead. These decisions were not taken lightly, but I believe it is a decision that is firmly in the national interest.

CHANG: All right, we're joined now by NPR's Frank Langfitt in London with the latest. Hey, Frank.


CHANG: So explain the significance of the cabinet's decision today on Brexit.

LANGFITT: This is huge for Theresa May. You know, she's been under so much criticism as prime minister. Some weren't even sure she'd ever get this far. Now she has a tentative deal with the EU and backing from her cabinet - some of whom were not at all happy with this agreement.

CHANG: So do we know anything about the details of this draft agreement?

LANGFITT: We have some general outlines, and more will be coming out later tonight. But simply put, it keeps the United Kingdom inside an EU customs area indefinitely. And the idea there, at least for the foreseeable future, is until they can get a new free trade deal or find a way of avoiding building customs checks on the island of Ireland, they're going to stay inside the union.

Now, Brexit of course creates a need for customs on what otherwise, up until now, has been an open border. And that's because the U.K. and the EU will eventually be two separate economies. Now, even Prime Minister May acknowledges this is not a perfect deal. It's not going to make some people happy at all. But what she's saying is this is the best the U.K. can get. And it's a lot better than the alternative, which was actually crashing out of the EU, which a lot of people thought would do a lot of damage to the economy here.

CHANG: OK. But the fact that the cabinet is backing this agreement is good news for Theresa May. But she's still facing some hurdles ahead, right?

LANGFITT: Oh, yeah. No, this is actually the easiest thing she has, I think, at the moment. The tough thing is going to be getting this through Parliament. There was criticism, on all sides today, of this deal even though the draft hadn't actually been released yet. And especially, she's getting it from Brexiters inside her own Conservative Party. And what they say is this agreement is going to keep the U.K. inside the EU and prevent it from making new trade deals with other countries. One MP said it was going to turn the United Kingdom into a vassal state.

CHANG: Like a return to feudalism?

LANGFITT: That was the implication, yeah. And here's Peter Bone. He's a member of Parliament. He's speaking today in Britain's House of Commons.


PETER BONE: You are not delivering the Brexit people voted for. And today you will lose the support of many conservative MPs and millions of voters across the country.

CHANG: Geez. I mean, do you think May's going to get enough support to get this through Parliament?

LANGFITT: It's going to be fascinating to see as this unfolds in the coming weeks. At the moment, the math does not look easy at all for her. You know, her conservative party doesn't even have a majority in the House of Commons. They have to rely on a party called the Democratic Unionist Party that's a part of Northern Ireland for an extra 10 votes to get things done well. The Democratic Unionists are not happy about this because of the way that it might impact and treat Northern Ireland. So we're gonna just have to see how this plays out. But she's going to really have to sell this to Parliament and also sell it to the people here.

CHANG: And also sell it to the European Union - I mean, we should note that the European leaders and their 27 parliaments have to agree to this as well, right?

LANGFITT: They do. And the thought is that they are happy - relatively happy with this agreement and that later this month the EU leaders would have their say at a summit in Brussels.

CHANG: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.