Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

More Brexit Uncertainty


Sometimes it seems the Brexit saga can't get any crazier or more convoluted, but yesterday, yet again, Brexit topped itself. British lawmakers put Prime Minister Boris Johnson under heavy legal and political pressure to ask for another Brexit extension. Johnson's response - he sent two contradictory letters to the European Union late last night, one unsigned in the name of Parliament, asking for an extension beyond the Halloween deadline, and another saying he didn't want an extension.

To decipher peak Brexit, we turn now to NPR's man in London Frank Langfitt. Good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I hope you can help us here because these contradictory letters...

LANGFITT: It is...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Seem very, very confusing. Why did Johnson send them, and what do they mean?

LANGFITT: Well, the reason he had - he felt he had to send them is that Parliament passed a law saying that Johnson would have to ask for an extension if he didn't get his Brexit withdrawal deal through yesterday. And the reason is lawmakers were really concerned that they would run out of time. There's a lot of additional legislation that has to be passed. And what they were afraid is if the clock ran out on Halloween - that the United Kingdom could crash out of the EU with no deal, which would cause even more economic damage than a regular, orderly Brexit is expected to cause.

Now, Boris Johnson - he's a hardcore Brexiteer. He vowed he would rather die in a ditch - be dead in a ditch, I think the way he phrased it - than ask for an extension. And his solution is to send this unsigned letter for Parliament and then send another letter saying, I'm not for this at all. So what he seems to be trying to do here, Lulu, is comply with the law while saying he completely disagrees with it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. So that's his point of view. But what is the EU supposed to make of getting two letters that say...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Opposite things?

LANGFITT: The good news is the EU is very sophisticated, and they've been watching British politics very closely. They know who they're dealing with with Boris Johnson. And so late, late last night, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council - he tweeted, the extension request has just arrived, and that he's going to consult with EU leaders. So he's clearly interpreting these letters as, in fact, a request for an extension.

And the EU would most likely be expected to grant it for - first of all, they don't want a no-deal Brexit, either. That damages the EU economy. And also, they don't want to be blamed for this 'cause they know that if this all falls apart and goes off the rails, a lot of people in Britain, particularly the Brexiteers, will try to blame the EU for it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what has been the reaction in Britain to all this?

LANGFITT: Well, it depends on your point of view and where you are on this issue. You know, if you look at the right-wing newspapers this morning, they're siding with Boris Johnson. He's cast himself as the defender of the Brexit voters in 2016 who voted to pass this during the referendum against what he's describing as an obstructionist Parliament. Now, the Mail On Sunday - they had a headline calling the House of Commons, quote, "the House of Fools." But Johnson's opponents in Parliament - he has a lot of them - see this as a political stunt.

This is John McDonnell. He's a leading figure in the opposition Labour Party, speaking this morning on Britain's Sky TV.


JOHN MCDONNELL: He's behaving a bit like a spoilt brat. Parliament made a decision. He should abide by it. And this idea that you send another letter contradicting the first - I think it flies in the face of what both Parliament and the courts have decided.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Frank, I guess the real question is, where does this leave Brexit? And will Johnson get his Brexit withdrawal deal and claim victory?

LANGFITT: Well, I think what you're going to see is - EU will probably grant an extension. What the government says, even this morning - they're vowing to get this done now. He's probably going to try to bring back this withdrawal agreement early this week for a vote, and the government thinks it has the votes to pass it. But it's a really tight schedule, and so we'll have to see if they can make it to the deadline.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And just briefly, what does this all - what does this tell us about the state of politics in the U.K.?

LANGFITT: It's under a ton of stress. Johnson, as I said, is a populist, and he's basically been testing democratic institutions like Parliament, like the courts to see if he can get his way. And there's been a lot of confrontation and people watching it really, really closely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thanks, Frank. That's NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt.

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