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Prime Minister May Stands Her Ground As Parliament Attacks 'Brexit' Draft Agreement


It's been an extraordinary day in British politics. Members of Parliament have spent much of today attacking the prime minister, Theresa May. Her controversial agreement to withdraw from the European Union has many critics. Some in her own Cabinet have even stepped down in protest.


Speaking at a press conference today, May remained confident her plan for Brexit is the right path forward.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: I believe with every fiber of my being that the course I have set out is the right one for our country and all our people. From the very beginning, I have known what I wanted to deliver for the British people - to honor their vote in the referendum.

CORNISH: With Britain's formal exit from the European Union around four months away, the prime minister is fighting for her political life. NPR's Frank Langfitt joins us from London with the latest. Hey there, Frank.


CORNISH: So remind us exactly what Theresa May has negotiated when it comes to the U.K. leaving the European Union.

LANGFITT: It keeps the United Kingdom in the European Union's customs area until they can work out a new free trade deal or figure out, like, the biggest sticking point in all of this, which is how to avoid a border on the island of Ireland. Now, right now the border's open because Northern Ireland, which is a part of the U.K., and the Irish Republic are both part of the EU. But after Brexit, they're going to be two separate economies. So there could be a need for a customs post, which would really upset a lot of people in Ireland.

CORNISH: The prime minister of course started her day with a statement to Parliament trying to boost support. How did that go?

LANGFITT: Audie, it went really badly. It started off - actually, before she even got to the House of Commons, there was a resignation of two Cabinet secretaries. There were also - several members of the government also resigned. And they all said they sort of couldn't support this deal because they said it threatened the integrity of the United Kingdom. Now, there is no clear way for the U.K. to exit this EU customs area that I was mentioning when the U.K. would want to.

And this made Brexiteers furious. They said the prime minister had surrendered to the European Union. And she - I got to say, Audie, in Commons, she took the toughest pummeling I've seen since I've been here for the last couple of years. This is Sir William Cash talking about the draft agreement. He's a member of May's own Conservative Party and a Brexiteer. Here's what he had to say.


WILLIAM CASH: These 585 pages are a testament to broken promises, failed negotiations and abject capitulation to the EU.

LANGFITT: It went on like this much of the morning. For the first hour, no one came to her defense. Later, Sir Peter Bottomley, also a member of the prime minister's party, spoke of the deal as the best of a series of bad options.


PETER BOTTOMLEY: The alternatives if we don't go through with this are the probability of crashing out and the possibility of a government led by the leader of the opposition, neither of which is an alternative.



LANGFITT: Sir Peter was talking about the increasing likelihood that if Parliament votes down the withdrawal agreement, the United Kingdom would not have enough time to come up with anything else and would crash out of the European Union, which most economists say would do considerable damage to the economy. His other point is if the Conservative Party pushes out the prime minister, they could end up with a general election in which the opposition Labour Party wins. Labour's run by Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist. For the Conservatives, who are hardcore capitalists, that would be a complete disaster. But speaking from 10 Downing Street this evening, Theresa May was determined to stand her ground.


MAY: I believe that this is a deal which does deliver, which is in the national interest. And am I going to see this through - yes.

LANGFITT: She acknowledged the deal wasn't popular and involved difficult choices. But she said it was the best that the U.K. was likely to get.


MAY: Leadership is about taking the right decisions, not the easy ones.

CORNISH: So, Frank, it seems like the prime minister is really facing two problems, including a real challenge to her leadership. So what's her plan going forward?

LANGFITT: You know, Audie, it's not clear this evening. What she did when she was talking at 10 Downing Street was said this is in the best interest of the country, that people in the United Kingdom want the government to get onto it. And she's still insistent actually on going to Brussels on November 25 to what she hopes will be the EU ratifying this deal. But you've got to wonder with all the turmoil here how that's actually going to work out.

CORNISH: Right. How many members of her Conservative Party really want to hold a leadership contest right now? I mean, does anyone want that job?

LANGFITT: What's really interesting - I think that it's very dangerous, as was mentioned earlier, that it could lead to a general election. At the same time, there are a lot of people in her party that are very frustrated with this process. And what's happened is they've started - some of them have started to put in letters to say that they want to actually call a no-confidence vote. You'd have to get to 48 letters for that to occur. If that's happened so far, we certainly haven't heard it. And that would be the next step in this process.

CORNISH: Given this rebellion, can Theresa May actually get a Brexit deal through Parliament at this point? What do you think?

LANGFITT: Honestly, Audie, if you listen to what happened in the House of Commons today, there seems to be no way that she could get it through. And most people you talk to see the math as impossible. So I don't know quite where she goes with this. I think what she's saying to people is, you know, just as we heard earlier. OK, do you want to go with no deal? That would mean leaving the European Union and sort of severing ties with this enormous economy after 40 years.

Most people think it could cause all kinds of problems here economically. Does the - you know, does the Conservative Party want to go through that? And do they want to risk ultimately the possibility of losing Downing Street and losing power of the government?

CORNISH: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks for your reporting.

LANGFITT: Hey, happy to do it, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.