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World

British Prime Minister's Revolt Following Brexit Plan

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. British Prime Minister Theresa May is in danger of losing her job. Ministers have been quitting her government over her Brexit plan. That even includes her Brexit secretary, who was supposed to carry out her plan. They feel the deal May negotiated cedes too much power to the EU. Some lawmakers are calling for her to be replaced, but May has been defiant. And she says the agreement will protect British jobs and livelihoods.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: I believe that this is a deal which does deliver that which is in the national interest. And am I going to see this through? Yes.

GREENE: Robert Shrimsley joins us now from London. He's the editorial director of the Financial Times and writes a regular column on British politics. Welcome to the program.

ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: Good morning.

GREENE: So you have written that what is playing out there seems like, quote, "one of those natural history programs in which a wounded animal is set on by hyenas." Is the prime minister in that much trouble right now?

SHRIMSLEY: Yes. She's in very great trouble. It's not absolutely certain that she's going to fall, but she's in very, very serious danger. The procedure for getting rid of a leader of the Conservative Party requires at the moment 48 of her MPs to sign a letter of no confidence in her, which then triggers a vote of those MPs to if they want to get rid of her. I would expect that those 48 letters will be secured, if not today, then very soon. And that will trigger a vote of no confidence. It's not certain she loses that, but it will be a close call.

GREENE: Wow. As early as today there could be these letters signed, pushing forward with a no-confidence vote?

SHRIMSLEY: The letters could be...

GREENE: This is imminent.

SHRIMSLEY: The number that is secured could be done today. Things move very fast when they get to this stage in the Conservative Party. If that happens, the vote would probably be very early next week.

GREENE: What happens then? I mean, does this throw British politics into total turmoil...

SHRIMSLEY: (Laughter).

GREENE: What happens?

SHRIMSLEY: Yes is a simple answer to your question. What happens then is that the Conservative Party has to elect a new leader. That can be a fairly cumbersome process. There's an awful lot of people who would want it because not only would you be becoming leader of the Conservative Party. You'd be becoming prime minister. So it would not necessarily be a short contest. They have rules which allow them to truncate a contest. But in the middle of a Brexit process with about four and a bit months to go till the U.K. is due to leave, it will be having a leadership crisis over whether the terms of this deal are good enough.

You might also see the opposition Labour Party try to bring down the government with a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, which could force a general election. So British politics is in absolute turmoil. I mean, you'd never pick - there's never been a better time to look back with satisfaction on the Declaration of Independence.

GREENE: (Laughter) For comparison's sake, OK. Well, can we talk about this Brexit plan? I mean, people who want Britain to leave the EU seem to hate her plan. People who want to stay in the EU seem to hate her plan. What is so bad about it?

SHRIMSLEY: Oh, it's a terrible deal. I mean, it's - but problem is it was the terrible deal that was going to happen. If you were on the Remain side during the Brexit debate, as I was, everybody warned that the European Union would have all of the upper hand in the negotiations, and Britain would get a terrible deal. And this is a terrible exit document. The only thing you can say about it is that it's not the worst it could be.

The real bone of contention lies around the issue of Northern Ireland and the border that Northern Ireland shares with the Irish Republic. Guarantees it being written into this deal to make sure that border is always frictionless. And the problem with those guarantees is it could actually leave Britain unable to decide when those guarantees need to lapse, when the - and it gives it a great deal of weakness in future negotiations. So the Brexiters (ph) are deeply concerned that we might actually never be able to leave the European Union structures.

GREENE: You say that the deal, though, could have been worse. Is anyone offering a realistic alternative here?

SHRIMSLEY: There are no really good realistic alternatives on the table at the moment, which is why the opposition to this deal is now focused on trying to get a second referendum and trying to persuade the British public to change their minds.

GREENE: There could be a second referendum coming?

SHRIMSLEY: It's possible. I think, in Parliament, there is no majority for leaving with no deal. And if this deal falls apart, there's nothing else, then I think there is a serious possibility the MPs will vote for a second referendum.

GREENE: Robert Shrimsley is the editorial director of the Financial Times of London. Thanks so much.

SHRIMSLEY: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.