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British Prime Minister Theresa May's Election Gamble Fails Dramatically

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So her party suffered a disastrous reverse in yesterday's British election. Prime Minister Theresa May called a general election thinking it would expand her Conservative majority. Instead, the Conservatives lost the majority. Yet, when May spoke with reporters today, the prime minister made it sound like everything was tickety boo - an expression I've just learned that means it's all good.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: This will allow us to come together as a country and channel our energies towards a successful Brexit deal that works for everyone in this country, securing a new partnership with the EU which guarantees our long-term prosperity. That's what people voted for last June. That's what we will deliver. Now let's get to work.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in London. Peter, what do you make of that chipper tone?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, fascinating, almost like a politician saying, earthquake? What earthquake?

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

KENYON: You notice she referred to the vote last June that was the one to leave the European Union and said nothing about the vote yesterday that took away her working majority in Parliament and no mention of the issues that help voters give the Labour Party a huge 29-seat boost - things like ending school tuition fees, more money to national health service, you know, help for the poor. Instead, she says, now let's get to work, which is what you might expect to hear from a newly-elected victorious politician not someone who just had a terrible night at the polls.

INSKEEP: I guess there's a bunch of complexities we ought to work in here. May's party did get the most votes of anybody in the low 40 percent range, which isn't bad when you have multiple parties. There's another complexity, though, that you just eluded to, Peter Kenyon. We think about this in terms of Brexit. What does it mean for Brexit? But it sounds like voters were voting on other things.

KENYON: Well, absolutely. And I think it's pretty clear that this decision to call these elections in April was a mistake. Certainly, the polls tightened immediately after she did that after not - after saying she wouldn't do it seven times in a row.

But in any event, there were these issues like help for the poor and schooling and education fees and NHS, the National Health Service, here that Jeremy Corbyn, the very controversial to some people, Labour leader hit on very consistently, very hard. And he attracted a lot of younger voters who seemed to have actually voted this time.

INSKEEP: So how does Theresa May govern with a minority? What does she mechanically have to do?

KENYON: Well, what she's done is have some kind of agreement of support. It's called, basically, an understanding. This is not a formal coalition deal. Technically, she's got a minority government. But she has the belief that the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, a very conservative party, will support the Conservatives in Parliament and allow them to govern.

INSKEEP: And they're going to keep trying to negotiate Brexit?

KENYON: They are going to keep trying to negotiate Brexit. The question is, will the EU 27 - those 27 nations there - want to negotiate with a government that may not be around long? People think we may be in for another election in Britain.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon. Thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: And next we have called a British novelist because you really need the storytelling talent of a novelist to even imagine the events in Britain the last few months. Robert Harris is his name. He's been on the program before and came to our attention in the last day or so because of a tweet he wrote about the election that we really cannot repeat on this family broadcast. He joins us live via Skype. Mr. Harris, welcome back to the program.

ROBERT HARRIS: Pleasure to be here.

INSKEEP: The gist...

HARRIS: I'll keep it clean.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) The gist of your tweet, essentially, was your country is in a lot of trouble because of that stupid, bloody referendum. What do you mean?

HARRIS: Well, you know, it was a great mistake to muddle two systems of government. You know, we have a representative democracy. We elect MPs. And the MPs go into the House of Commons. And they choose the laws. We had a referendum, a plebiscite, which overruled Westminster's power. And we have been in a mess ever since.

INSKEEP: This was the referendum - we should...

HARRIS: Trying to reconcile these two...

INSKEEP: ...Remind people - that called for Brexit back in 2006. That's how Britain got here.

HARRIS: Yes, that's right - a narrow win for Brexit, 52-48. And the government - Mrs. May herself was not in favor of leaving the European Union and has been trying to get ready for these negotiations. And she spotted an opportunity to increase her majority because she thought the Labour Party looked weak and also because the Brexit period is likely to be one of economic damage. So there seemed a window of opportunity to have an election. And it's gone wrong.

And really, now my country finds itself in a pretty appalling position with a weakened government prepared to go into negotiations with the United 27 members of the European Union unsure of exactly what we wanted and with a very divided country behind the negotiating team. I don't think in my lifetime, the United Kingdom has been in such appalling position.

INSKEEP: But does anybody in a position of power seriously want, maybe, to get out of Brexit, to back away from this? Or is it too late for that?

HARRIS: There is probably a majority in the House of Commons not to stop Brexit, but to go for a different form of Brexit. When the British people voted to leave the - leave Europe, the question was simply yes or no. But leaving Europe - there are very different ways of leaving Europe. One, to which we seem to be heading at the moment, is what's called a hard Brexit, where we might, indeed, end up with no agreement at all. Certainly, we wouldn't be a part of the single market, which is so economically powerful.

There is another option. That is that we do remain a part of the single market. And in return, we continue to allow unrestricted access by citizens of the European Union to come and work here. That second softer Brexit, which most economists think would be far preferable, that now does become more feasible, I think.

INSKEEP: Oh. So maybe from your perspective, this could actually turn out to be - this election result could turn out to be good, better, less bad?

HARRIS: It's possible. It's certainly possible because certain realities are now going to start to bite. We've lived in a kind of twilight period - a phony war that's gone on for a year with not much happening. But in 10 days, the negotiations begin in earnest. And at that point, I think a lot of people are going to start wondering whether we're on the right path. And this election result would legitimize a different approach, I think.

INSKEEP: Robert Harris, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

HARRIS: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: That's the British author Robert Harris on this day after a British vote in which Theresa May's Conservative Party lost her majority in Parliament. The result - the way ahead is not clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAN6 SONG, "HYPERION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.