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How British Prime Minister Theresa May And The U.K. Ended Up In A Political Crisis


Britain's prime minister, Theresa May, has survived an effort by some members of her own party to oust her. Conservative lawmakers forced a no-confidence vote over May's handling of Brexit, the process of leaving the European Union. Even though May hung on, more than 100 members of her party said she was no longer the right leader to manage Brexit. Earlier, I spoke with Anand Menon, professor of politics at King's College London, about what led to this political moment.

So, first, I want to just take us back briefly to the referendum two years ago to leave the EU. It was a yes-or-no vote. And can you talk about those voters who wanted to leave the EU? What was driving them? What was driving this issue?

ANAND MENON: Well, this goes to the nub of the problems we face now in the sense that people voted to leave the European Union. There was no option to specify how or why you wanted to leave the European Union. So a lot of people in the United Kingdom were unhappy about levels of immigration and saw ending freedom of movement as the key reason for leaving the European Union.

That being said, there were others in the leave camp who said I'm perfectly happy with high levels of immigration. There are other reasons why I want to leave. It might be because of this notion of sovereignty. We want to be in control of our own laws. It might be because we want Britain to sign its own trade deals. And the problem that the prime minister's had from the start is that not only were there a variety of reasons why different groups voted to leave, but some of those reasons were outright contradictory. So she can't even please all leave voters, let alone pleasing those 48 percent who voted remain.

CORNISH: What about the Conservative Party itself? Can you talk about the issues that were dividing lawmakers, why they couldn't come to a real agreement around one, I guess, course of action?

MENON: Well, the Conservative Party's had a civil war going on inside its parliamentary party at least since the early '90s. And that civil war has been over Europe. On top of that - on top of the sort of leave-remain division inside the Conservative Party, there is a big split between those who backed different sorts of Brexit. So there are some in the Conservative Party who want us to leave to honor the referendum. They think we should maintain a close trading relationship with the EU. There are others who are in favor of what you could call a no-deal Brexit. Let's just leave. Don't bother signing any agreements, and Britain will be just fine. And it's those arguments that are ravaging the parliamentary party at the moment and have made it so hard for Theresa May to govern effectively.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what about the flip side of this negotiation with the EU? How did EU countries respond, helping or hurting Theresa May's cause?

MENON: Well, I think the European Union has always been a rather stubborn negotiator. You ask any country that has negotiated trade with the European Union, and what they will tell you is the European Union tends to put down its demands and then wait till you accede to them. And over time, Theresa May has caved on most, if not all, of those issues. She has won some concessions from them, but in general, the outcome of this talk is roughly where the European Union would have wanted it to be rather than where she would have wanted it to be.

CORNISH: In the meantime, have views changed any?

MENON: Well, it's interesting. British public opinion has shifted in all sorts of fascinating ways since the referendum. So, for instance, there's good, compelling evidence that the British people are far less concerned about immigration than they were at the time of the vote. But what we're not entirely sure about is whether that's because they think Brexit is taking care of the problem or for other reasons. At the same time, British public opinion over Brexit itself has remained remarkably constant. There's been some movement away from support for Brexit. But in general, there's not been a huge amount of change.

CORNISH: Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe. He's professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College London. Thank you for explaining it to us.

MENON: Absolute pleasure. Thanks ever so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.