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As Prime Minister, Theresa May Will Oversee Britain's Exit From EU

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's the challenge that the new British prime minister has set for herself. Theresa May takes over today, replacing David Cameron. She won power amid the chaos after Britain voted to leave the European Union. She opposed doing that, but she has vowed to go ahead with it regardless. So how? We'll ask Zanny Minton Beddoes. She is editor-in-chief of The Economist, and she's on the line from London. Welcome to the program.

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: Thank you, great to be here.

INSKEEP: So Theresa May herself doesn't think this is a good idea. How does the U.K. go forward without damaging itself more than it already has?

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: Well, that is the single biggest question. She has to negotiate Britain's exit from the EU and in doing so, limit and minimize the damage to Britain's economy and to its security and so forth. She's probably the best-placed person to do that. As you said, she was in favor of remaining, but she was a rather reluctant remainer. And I think she's going to have to, basically, make clear to the British people that there are going to be trade-offs.

You know, during the campaign for the referendum, people were promised a free lunch. They were promised they could have their cake and eat it, that they would not be - have to have to pay money to Brussels, that they could control immigration, and that we would still have access to the single market. And in fact, we're going to have to compromise on those things. And she's going to be the person who has to make those compromises, work out what her priorities are and, hopefully, negotiate something that limits the damage to Britain.

INSKEEP: Why is she the best-placed person as someone who didn't really believe in the idea?

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: Well, for start, I think she's one of the very few grown-ups in British politics right now. As you know, we've had a fairly interesting...

INSKEEP: Interesting...

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: ...Few weeks.

INSKEEP: ...That's a good word, yes.

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: It's pretty telling that many of the prominent leavers have actually quit. There's a new quip in British politics that all the leavers are actually quitters.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: But Theresa May has been home secretary. She's a very experienced politician. She's a very serious politician. She's been known to be rather skeptical of the EU. But she decided to support her prime minister and to be in favor of remain. But she was never an adamant remain, as she kept a very low profile in the time before the referendum. And so she now has the credibility, I think, with the Brexiters, as they're known. Much will depend on who she appoints.

But I think she's universally seen as someone who does not play political games, who is very serious, who's very determined, who gets on with the job. And after a period of, frankly, more turmoil than we're used to and that is really good for us, that's probably the best thing.

INSKEEP: Is she charismatic at all?

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: That's not an adjective I would use. The British people will see what she's like. She's kept a pretty low profile, except on issues of immigration. As home secretary, she's been very tough on immigration. So I think for many people, the question will be - is she really a little Englander who wants to kind of put up barriers? Or is she someone who is open and international-facing?

INSKEEP: President Obama said to us in an interview the other day - OK, he didn't agree with Brexit. But it doesn't have to be that bad. It can be done in a way that's not that bad. Have experts in Britain gotten around to the idea that maybe it's not that bad?

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: Well, it depends on what we end up with. I think the simple question is - how close do we remain to the rest of Europe? And in particular, do we remain within the single market? How much access do we have to the single market? And what are we prepared to do in terms of accepting European regulation, in terms of paying into the European budget and in terms of accepting the free movement of people to do that?

And I think the question for the next few months is for Theresa May and her team to work out what the right compromise is there, what we could achieve in negotiations with Europeans, how to go about it. That will demand a very cool head and some serious thought and then - and just as importantly - to explain that to the British people because there are an awful lot of people in Britain who think that they can have their cake and eat it.

INSKEEP: Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of The Economist. Thanks, as always.

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.