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British Prime Minister Theresa May Scrambles To Save Brexit And Her Job

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

British Prime Minister Theresa May is defiant in the face of a no-confidence vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: I will contest that vote with everything I've got.

INSKEEP: At least 48 members of her party signed letters demanding a vote on party leadership. And that vote today comes amid opposition to her plan for Brexit. Financial Times writer Sebastian Payne is following all this. And he's on the line from London. Welcome to the program, sir.

SEBASTIAN PAYNE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why do some members of the Conservative Party think a leadership change is a good idea?

PAYNE: A lot of Conservative MPs have lost faith in Theresa May's strategy. She's spent the past two years meticulously negotiating this deal with the EU. And it's now the only deal on the table. But for those Conservatives who really believe in a clean, quick break with the EU, this deal does not deliver it. And she was due to have a big vote on that deal yesterday evening, yet she cancelled that vote in the face of opposition. And for many MPs, they simply feel that her authority has gone. She has no ability to lead. And she's also turning the party and the country somewhat into a bit of a laughing stock.

INSKEEP: OK. And, of course, we don't know if she has lost majority support or not. We'll find that out this evening, London time. I am curious if there are some Conservative supporters of Prime Minister May who might welcome this vote because if she should prevail, it puts the opposition to rest.

PAYNE: Exactly. Under the party's rules, if she wins this vote, she cannot be challenged again for another year. And at the moment, there's a lot of expectations management going on with some MPs saying if 80 MPs vote against her, she has to go. If 50 MPs, she has to go. But my sense would be is that if a third of the Conservative Parliamentary party - that's about 100 MPs or so - vote against Theresa May, then she probably has to resign because as with the fall of Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago, she didn't actually lose the vote. But there were enough colleagues who voted against her that her authority was very much gone.

So they will begin voting at 6 p.m. London time. And around 9 p.m. London time, we'll have the clear answer about whether she's still party leader. She will remain prime minister even if she lost the vote for that period.

INSKEEP: Oh. She would remain prime minister, but that - she would eventually lose that job as well, would she not?

PAYNE: Exactly, that to no longer become prime minister, you have to go and visit the queen and tell her that you are no longer able or willing to serve. But Theresa May would remain in Downing Street until the party can elect a new leader - a process that would take a couple of weeks because it has to go through a period where MPs decide the two candidates. And that then goes out to a postal vote for the Conservative Party...

INSKEEP: OK.

PAYNE: ...Membership.

INSKEEP: You're telling us a useful bit of information. She really just needs 50 percent plus one to prevail. But politically speaking, it could be that she needs a lot more than that. So we'll be watching that. I'd like to know because we should note that you have written that - in the past that you're a Euroskeptic. You're no fan of the European Union. But you've also said the case for leaving does not make sense. Are events proving you right?

PAYNE: I think so - that my perspective on this was that Britain is quite a Euroskeptic nation. We are - have an island mentality. And the EU is viewed very differently in the rest of Europe, too. It is to a big part of Britain. But one of the reasons that I voted to remain in 2016 was the prospect of chaos, was the prospect of uncertainty and was the prospect of threatening the future of the United Kingdom with Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales breaking away. I think the events of the past two years have confirmed that. And if we do have another referendum, which is something a lot of people in Britain are talking about the moment, then I would vote to remain once again, despite my reservations about the EU because in the real world, it's often the least worst option.

INSKEEP: OK. In about 10 seconds, a European court has said Britain can change its mind. Is there a serious movement to try that?

PAYNE: I think there's a serious movement to put the vote back out to the people. But will Britain change its mind? I still think the majority of people would vote, again, to leave the EU.

INSKEEP: Wow.

PAYNE: And that would ultimately mean we end up leaving in a much harder, quicker and more damaging way.

INSKEEP: Sebastian Payne of the Financial Times, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.