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Britain's Parliament Says 'No' To Theresa May's Brexit Deal


Well, the future of Brexit is uncertain this morning. So is the future for Prime Minister Theresa May. Really, so is the future of Britain. The prime minister is facing a vote of no confidence today. This comes after her government suffered a historic defeat yesterday as British lawmakers rejected her Brexit deal overwhelmingly.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The ayes to the right 202. The noes to the left 432.


GREENE: Here is Prime Minister May.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: Every day that passes without this issue being resolved means more uncertainty, more bitterness and more rancor.

GREENE: And all this with just 10 weeks left before Britain leaves the EU because of the Brexit referendum two years ago. Robert Shrimsley has been covering all of this. He's editorial director for the Financial Times and joins us from London. Good morning, Robert.


GREENE: So those were gasps I was hearing in Parliament. Was that just shock over how big this margin was and how overwhelming this rejection of this Brexit deal really was?

SHRIMSLEY: Yeah, that's exactly right. I think that everybody expected that the prime minister was going to lose the vote on Tuesday night. And I think many people expected she was going to lose badly. But you're talking records here. This is the greatest ever defeat since anyone bothered keeping records of parliamentary defeats. The largest anyone could previously members a defeat of 166 votes in 1924. And she's gone way past that.

GREENE: Does that mean she's done? I mean, there's a vote of no confidence today. Is this the end of the road for the prime minister?

SHRIMSLEY: No. I mean, quite the contrary. That's the most remarkable thing about this process - is that, actually, ordinarily under the British system, if a prime minister loses on something quite as important as this, they're basically finished because you are prime minister because you have the ability to command the majority in the House of Commons. But, in fact, there'll be a confidence vote tabled by the opposition parties today. And we expect her to win it. So we'll be in this extraordinary position where she can't get her business done, but nobody can get rid of her.

GREENE: OK. So she can't get her business done. Will she be able to get any business done after this vote? I mean, what do you do if you are hanging on by a thread as prime minister - you have a Brexit deal, which basically deals with the future of a country that everyone in - I mean, a lot of people in Parliament have rejected. What's her next move?

SHRIMSLEY: Well I think what she intends to try and do it here she's announced some conciliatory moves, said she's going to talk to other people across the political divide, which she has, in fact, been doing a little bit already. But it doesn't sound like she really wants to consult very widely. And she's put some very thick, red lines about what she's prepared to negotiate. It looks to me as if she's actually trying to just run the clock a bit down, in spite of saying that she wouldn't do so, to get a few more concessions from the European Union and essentially present Parliament with what is, with all intents and purposes, the same deal but with maybe only seven weeks to go and hope that people are panicked and supporting it on the grounds that they want to avoid crashing out with no deal. The issue now is that she's facing a confrontation with Parliament with MPs on all sides who are saying, no, no, this isn't good enough. We are going to take control of this process if you can't find a way to seek an agreement that more people can support.

GREENE: I mean, the one thing a lot of people have agreed on seems to be that doing Brexit without any kind of deal could be total chaos, right?


GREENE: So what what are the options if she doesn't get some sort of new deal that that gets approval?

SHRIMSLEY: Well, it is an absolutely terrible outcome for the U.K. And it could happen in, you know, as we said, 10 weeks. We've got ministers planning for food shortages and medicine shortages at the moment in the case of a palsy (ph) that they will have led to. The problem is she has about a hundred MPs on her own side who quite like that outcome, who think that the European Union's bluffing and that Britain will muddle through. And therefore, she faces a major split in her own party in trying to seek consensus. There is this general view that Parliament will not support a no-deal outcome. So you have a few options. There's a few technical other forms of Brexit which are a bit softer, which keep Britain in certain other aspects of the European institutions. And in the long run, you have the possibility of Parliament deciding they have to have a second referendum and throw it back to the people because it can't decide.

GREENE: Donald Tusk, the European Council president, seemed to be hinting on social media after this vote that - you know, telling Britain, why don't you to stay in the EU? I guess if there's a new referendum, that's possible. But that doesn't seem like a smooth path at all.

SHRIMSLEY: Well, nothing's passed. Nothing is smooth. There's nothing good about any of this. I think - I mean, if we wanted to cancel Brexit, it would be impossible. Although legally it's possible, politically, I think it would be impossible to do so without a second referendum. And that will take a bit of time. There's no guarantee. Although sentiment has moved towards remaining, there's no guarantee that that would be the outcome. But I think that is the only way it could happen.

GREENE: How are people feeling in the country? I mean, are people going to work and doing their thing or thinking about this constantly?

SHRIMSLEY: I think there's a mix. I think there's no escaping Brexit anywhere. It's in all conversations. And everybody is both completely sick of it and, in many cases, completely mesmerized by it. Many passions run extremely high. People are very, very upset, very angry. People who are on the same side are fighting each other over tactic. And then there's a great mass of the population who's just getting on with it and wants to see a resolution.

GREENE: Robert Shrimsley is editorial director of the Financial Times, covering this extraordinary moment in Britain. Robert, thanks.

SHRIMSLEY: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.