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As Deadline Nears, U.K. Parliament Again Rejects Brexit Plan


British Prime Minister Theresa May cannot say she was that surprised. As widely expected, the Parliament she leads voted down another Brexit plan.


And so now 16 days from a deadline for Britain to leave the European Union, there is no plan. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in London and joins me. Hi, Frank.


GREENE: All right. So more votes, right? What exactly happens in the coming hours and days?

LANGFITT: Well, what we're going to see today is, they're going to vote on whether they should leave the European Union without a deal on March 29, which is the deadline for Brexit. And it's not expected to pass because it could be seen as doing a lot of economic damage here.

There's even a move to the U.K. saying it won't actually have any tariffs across the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, to prevent a hard border there if that happens. Then most likely on Thursday, there'll be a vote on whether to postpone this. Of course, that'll be up to the EU as to whether to accept it.

GREENE: And what's the likelihood that the EU is going to show any more patience here?

LANGFITT: I think they will. They don't want to be seen as the bad guys in this, as they are often portrayed by Brexiteers. But there's also the problem of European Parliament elections coming up in May. So if there were going to be a delay, it would be a short one. And then the other question, as Theresa May said last night, is, you know, what are we going to tell them we're going to do with this extra time? They've been negotiating this for over two years. They still haven't come to a resolution. So the EU's going to want to see a road map and a game plan.

GREENE: So the only thing we're sure of is you're going to be very busy in the coming days, (laughter) I think.

LANGFITT: I am. And I think that we're going to be covering this for a lot longer, David.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thanks.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it.

INSKEEP: Frank, of course, has been posting on Instagram. There's a picture he put yesterday of a sign in the House of Commons, directions to the media center for what was called a meaningful vote, it said on the sign - which indeed these votes have been, as opposed to meaningless votes. Let's bring in Sara Hobolt. She's sitting next to Frank there in London, if I'm not mistaken. She's a political scientist at the London School of Economics, where she studies electoral behavior. Good morning.

SARA HOBOLT: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Goodness, studying electoral behavior, you must have had a lot of material to work with in Britain the last couple of years.

HOBOLT: Yeah. I mean, it's an exciting time. It's a very surprising time.

INSKEEP: What are people saying as they watch this apparent Parliamentary train wreck?

HOBOLT: Well, I mean, the nation right now is very divided. But there's one thing that British people agree on, and that is that they are very unimpressed with the political class with what's going on in Parliament. There's very little trust that Parliament will be able to get a good deal and that they'll will even be able to agree anything.

INSKEEP: With that said, the apparent craziness of this week, is there actually a logic to it? We're getting a vote and finding out there's no support for a deal. We're now going to get another vote and finding there's no support, probably, for leaving Europe without a deal. And that, in a way, moves the process forward.

HOBOLT: Well, the big problem is here that both in the public but also in Parliament, parties and partisans have really split down the middle. And that's why it's so hard to agree on a compromise. It's so hard to sort of split the difference on Brexit 'cause on the one hand, you have "remainers," who really want to stay, find a way of staying in the European Union and overturning this decision.

And on the other hand, you have Brexiteers, who really don't see a need for any kind of compromise and just think it's better just to get out of there. But these two camps we really find in both parties and especially within the Conservative Party. And that's why there's no prospect of finding a deal, a compromise deal in Parliament. And people can agree on what they are against but not necessarily what they are for.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about each of those camps and your understanding of public support for those camps. You talked about Brexiteers whose attitude might now just be, let's just go. Just rip off the Band-Aid. Whatever happens, happens. Just go. Is there any particular public enthusiasm for just going through with Brexit with no deal, and whatever disaster there might be, that's what it is?

HOBOLT: Yes. What we've seen since the referendum in 2016 is that these two camps - the "leavers," or the Brexiteer, on the one hand, and the "remainers" on the other hand - have really become more entrenched. It's almost become sort of an identity that people - a fault line that people are polarized along. And on this Brexit, or the "leave" camp, they really want to - there's a big majority amongst those for just saying, let's just leave. Let's not talk to the EU anymore. Let's not pay them anything. Let's just get out of there as soon as possible.

Of course, on the other hand, in the "remain" camp, there's a lot of nervousness around that. And that means, really, in both camps, there's not a lot of support around a compromise deal for May because the "remainers" want what they call a people's vote, a second referendum, a second chance to overturn this decision.

INSKEEP: Is the following a true statement, Sara Hobolt? We've gotten the impression from afar that there is a very large part of the British Parliament consisting of members who have committed to going through with Brexit, they know the people voted for it, but they actually privately, or even not so privately, think it's a terrible idea.

HOBOLT: I mean, there is a tension between direct democracy that we saw in the referendum, where we know the public was sort of evenly split but came out in favor of "leave," and a representative democracy, where there was a very clear majority in Parliament for "remain" leading up to the referendum. And that's clearly a tension. However, Parliament overwhelmingly voted for going ahead with this Article 50 process that would lead to Britain leaving the EU.

So they have accepted that sort of - the public will. The problem is, now there's a deadlock. It's not necessarily what MPs wanted. I don't think that there was some secretive plan not to go ahead with Brexit. The problem is now that they can't agree on how to go ahead with Brexit. And that means that the option of maybe going back to the people is becoming more attractive, even though it's clearly not ideal when the public is still so divided.

INSKEEP: Becoming more attractive, meaning, there is building support for a second referendum, putting some slightly different question to the public?

HOBOLT: Exactly. There is, both in the public and also in Parliament. Again, I don't think that's a majority today in Parliament, for another vote, but it could as we approach the 29th of March, or the end of May or wherever - the next cliff it will be. It might be that the option, if there's no agreement in Parliament, how are we going to get out of this deadlock?

On the one hand, we can leave without a deal, which, as Frank said, would have disastrous economic consequences, is what most people believe. And on the other hand, we could say, OK, let's just bring it back to the people and see what they think.

INSKEEP: Technically, nothing has happened yet. But I'd like to know from your experience how this is affecting daily life, if it's getting to the point where people can't speak to each other if they're on the opposite side of this question, or whether people aren't making plans for the future because they don't know what the future looks like even a month from now.

HOBOLT: There's definitely a lot of uncertainty, but also there is this sort of polarization where it's spilled over into how people feel about each other, that there are these sort of camps where "leavers" and "remainers" feel very distrustful of each other and think that, you know, the other side do not really have the, you know, the nation's best interest at heart. And that's a real problem with the kind of polarization, and also something that's known in the United States.

INSKEEP: Sure. Well, and in the United States, in some cases, families are divided. Is that happening where you are?

HOBOLT: You know, that is very much happening. You know, people are divided at workplaces, in families. And they really feel that, you know, the other side, they can't understand the other side, and they have problems, you know, finding some middle ground, some compromise on this.

INSKEEP: Sara Hobolt, thank you very much for helping us to understand what we can.

HOBOLT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's a professor at the European Institute of the London School of Economics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.