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Brexit Negotiations Provide A Great Challenge To May's Leadership

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Britain's prime minister Theresa May is facing yet another challenge to her leadership. She delivers a speech today to business leaders attempting to defend her plan to bring the United Kingdom out of the European Union. That plan has prompted fierce criticism from within her own Cabinet and from the wider British parliament, where people have been gathering letters to try to prompt a no confidence vote in her leadership. George Parker is following all this. He's political editor for the Financial Times. Welcome to the program.

GEORGE PARKER: Hello.

INSKEEP: Does it feel like you're near the end of the crisis?

PARKER: It certainly feels like we're coming towards the end of this saga, which has been dragging on for more than two years since Britain voted to leave the EU. And this week, as you've just been saying, is a really critical week for the prime minister. She's going to Brussels on Sunday to hopefully get sign-off from the rest of the EU for the terms of Britain's departure from the EU. But at the same time, she's facing these sort of squalls at home, the possibility of a leadership challenge by some of her own MPs who don't like the deal that she signed, and also the possibility of a second wave of Cabinet resignations by euroskeptic Cabinet ministers who are equally unhappy. So it's a difficult domestic situation. And as usual, the more difficult negotiation for the prime minister is back at home with our own party than the talks, I think, over in Brussels.

INSKEEP: I almost wonder if the European Union approval of May's plan hurts her politically. It makes it seem like she's not being strong enough if the Europeans actually like the terms.

PARKER: Well, I think that's always a danger. I think there are some people in our party who think that she should have driven a much harder bargain in Brussels, and they think she's capitulated. It's not the dream of Brexit they had in mind. And basically the deal she's negotiated keeps Britain locked in to many of the EU's rules into the distant future as the price we'll have to pay for getting access to the European market.

They don't like that. They had this much more sort of Churchillian idea of Britain walking off, having an independent path, trading with the world on the high seas. And it doesn't quite meet up to the sort of lyrical Brexit that they originally had in mind.

INSKEEP: I guess we've been learning here about the mechanics of a vote of no confidence. We've been told that 48 members would have to sign letters in order for there to be a vote of no confidence. Should we presume that her opponents don't have 48 because if they did we would have heard about it by now?

PARKER: Well, they've been talking about this for about six months, the possibility of defenestrate Theresa May, and they so far have failed to muster the 48 names. My guess is if they didn't get the 48 names last week when the terms of the deal were published, they're going to struggle a bit this week.

They're in a dilemma. They can probably get just about 48 names to trigger this vote of confidence in the prime minister, but they wouldn't have anywhere near enough MPs to actually beat her. So they either end up having this vote of confidence and losing and looking rather stupid, or not having the vote of confidence this week and looking like they didn't have the numbers in the first place, in which they also look stupid.

INSKEEP: Very briefly. Is part of the problem here for May's opponents that many of them might like to unseat her as prime minister, but none of them would dare try to be prime minister themselves right this minute?

PARKER: Who on earth would want to be prime minister of this country at the moment? They would (laughter) - and also from the point of view the Brexiteers, they would be in charge of their own project, which I suspect would be the last thing they really want.

INSKEEP: Mr. Parker, pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much. George Parker is political editor for the Financial Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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