Britain's Theresa May Is Pressured To Come Up With A New Brexit Plan

Oct 3, 2018
Originally published on October 3, 2018 8:39 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Theresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom, is in a jam. She's trying to get a deal to leave the European Union that, so far, the EU has rejected. And many in her own Conservative Party oppose it, too. Today at the party's annual meeting in Birmingham, England, she tried again to sell it.

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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: What we are proposing is very challenging for the EU. But if we stick together and hold our nerve, I know we can get a deal that delivers for Britain.

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INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt always holds his nerve and is on the line from London.

Hi there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How would you say the prime minister did?

LANGFITT: She actually did pretty well, Steve. You know, usually, she is a stiff performer. She came out actually in the hall dancing to ABBA's "Dancing Queen." She was actually...

INSKEEP: OK.

LANGFITT: Yeah, which is not a typical Theresa May move. But she was making fun of these awkward, robotic dance moves that she put on at a school at a recent trip in South Africa that became a huge meme here. So for her to poke fun at herself, probably a very good way to start off.

On the political front, as you're saying, she's under pressure from both sides. But she remains defiant. And she basically doubled down on this compromise deal that would allow tariff-free trade on goods with the EU - which of course is a giant market, over 500 million consumers - but would stop the free flow of EU workers coming here. And no longer would the U.K. be subject to laws made in Brussels. This is the way that she put it.

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MAY: Taking back control of our borders, laws and money - good for jobs, good for the union. It keeps faith with the British people. It is in the national interest.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: Frank, I suppose it must seem to be in Britain's national interest since she's demanding such good terms that there's no indication she can get them. Hasn't the European Union already said it won't accept this deal?

LANGFITT: Well, they have. And that's why, I think, domestically, this sounds good. But it doesn't seem to fully recognize what the European Union has said. And the other challenge that she faces here is that she may have trouble getting a deal like this through Parliament given that there are a lot of people in her own party who are against it.

Now, she's got a couple more weeks, Steve, before there's this other meeting in Brussels to hammer out an agreement. And you've got to wonder if there might be a compromise down the line, although that could be embarrassing given the kind of speech that she just gave. The EU is adamant that you can't have the free movement of goods without accepting EU workers. That would break the rules of the club. And eventually, people in the EU think it would lead to the disintegration of the union.

INSKEEP: Frank, can I just tell you something that I hear from people here...

LANGFITT: Sure.

INSKEEP: ...Because we talk to you periodically? You tell us, essentially, the same story - that the British are proposing unrealistic terms that they can't get. And they go back to square one again. And somebody will be listening to that story and say to me, have they thought of maybe just voting again on whether they really want to do Brexit?

LANGFITT: Yeah. That comes up here as well. And that is in the newspapers and the conversation. There are some polls that have shown a small change. But also, if you look at the polls, actually, people are more entrenched in some ways than they were back in 2016. I was out in Liverpool last week, talked to more than 80 people. I found only one person who had shifted their opinion. And today, as before, Prime Minister May, she was adamant that there's going to be no rerun of 2016. This is what she said.

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MAY: A second referendum would be a politicians' vote, politicians telling people they got it wrong the first time and should try again. Think for a moment what it would do to faith in our democracy.

INSKEEP: It is really interesting that Conservative Party leaders, including the likes of May, have said all along they're not total fans of this Brexit thing but they want to respect the will of the people. And that's what, I guess, she said again. What else did she say in this speech?

LANGFITT: Well, it's interesting. Brexit was actually the smallest part of this speech. It mostly was focusing on a domestic agenda - jobs, the competence of the Conservative Party, which previously, it's definitely been known for, as well as just even the diversity of her own Cabinet.

And that's because Brexit has been really divisive for the party. It's been a millstone around the neck of Conservatives. And last week, I was at the Labour Party conference up in Liverpool. And they were very - they seemed pretty united. They felt like a government party in waiting. And May and the other Conservatives, I think they know they need to stick together. Their worst nightmare is being forced into a general election and losing to the Labour Party. And that would put Labour's leader, Jeremy Corbyn - he's a socialist - in No. 10 Downing Street. And that's something they absolutely don't want to see.

INSKEEP: Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.