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What Happens Now That Lawmakers Have Rejected Theresa May's Brexit Plan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's bring in another voice now to help us try to make sense of this dramatic day - as Ari just said, this dramatic day unfolding in Britain. George Parker is political editor of the Financial Times. He is on the line from London. Hi, George.

GEORGE PARKER: Hi there.

KELLY: If I asked you for one word to sum up what just happened, what might that word be?

PARKER: Momentous, I think, probably. I mean, this is not just a crushing defeat on an epic scale. It's actually the biggest defeat suffered by any British government ever. I mean, it's absolutely off the scale - 230-vote defeat. And it's left the whole sort of question of Britain's exit, Britain's future relationship with Europe, up in the air. It's a absolutely enormous occasion.

KELLY: You used the word momentous, but let me put to you the question that we just put to Frank Langfitt. What on Earth happens next?

PARKER: Well, that's the - that's the - really, the question we all need to be asking tonight because what we do know is that the House of Commons doesn't like the deal that Theresa May has put together. We also know that Parliament doesn't want Britain to leave the EU without a deal because that'll be extremely disruptive for business. It'll create lots of legal uncertainty, including for the rights of citizens and EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa.

What we don't know is what Parliament actually wants from Brexit. And that's the big question, as Theresa May was pointing out in that clip you played earlier. She said, well, fine. I know what you don't like, but what do you like? And then you've got as many answers almost as you've got MPs. It's a very uncertain picture.

KELLY: I mean, among the ironies here is that, had we interviewed you yesterday, you would have told me it was really uncertain what happens next. What does today's vote actually change?

PARKER: Well, I think what it means is that Theresa May's deal is on life support. And I think, you know, any idea that she can get away with just tweaking this a bit and getting some new assurances from Brussels about the operation of the deal, whether that would be enough, I think that's now been blown out of the water by tonight's vote. So it's going to require a lot more work.

I think the big question is how imaginative or bold is Theresa May prepared to be? Is she prepared to go for a much softer form of Brexit, leaving Britain in a much closer orbit to the EU in the future? Now, that would alienate many of the right-wing Eurosceptics in her party. But it would be more likely to bring on board opposition MPs and form some sort of cross-party consensus.

So that's the question - how bold is she prepared to be?

KELLY: And I wonder what your answer to that would be. I mean, how do you rate Theresa May's chances of being prime minister a month from now?

PARKER: Well, I think one thing we know about Theresa May is boldness is not necessarily one of her characteristics. And I think she will - her instinct will be to try to patch up this deal and try to - try to keep it going.

Can she still be prime minister in another month's time? Well, look, it seems unlikely, you know, given what's just happened. But I would say that - if I was putting money on it, I would say the answer to that is yes, simply because of this - Theresa May may not be an inspirational prime minister, but lots of conservative MP fear what would happen if you removed her because then you'd plunge the country into even greater chaos.

There'd be a prolonged leadership contest in the conservative party if they chose a new prime minister. The new prime minister might be a Brexiteer, for example, someone like Boris Johnson. And then what would happen next? He would go to Brussels, try to negotiate a better deal, wouldn't get one and we'd be back to square one.

So for all of Theresa May's problems, her weakness is almost her strength - that people are frightened to remove a fear - for fear of what might come next.

KELLY: The possibility of going back to Brussels and trying to get a tweak or trying to ask for more, Brussels has said over and over, we gave you our best deal. We're done. (Laughter) So does today's vote change anything?

PARKER: Well, I think Brussels was always prepared to come back with a little bit more. I think they were reluctant to give Theresa May everything she wanted before this vote because they knew that Mrs. May's critics would simply bank the concession and come back for more. I think there has been some discussion in Brussels about giving some sort of legal undertaking that the backstop arrangement for the Irish border, which May Tory MPs don't like because they think it could be...

KELLY: Which has been a huge sticking point.

PARKER: ...Trapped in the customs union. That would be a - really would be a temporary arrangement only. I think that could still be forthcoming. But Theresa May's problem will be if Parliament demands much more sweeping concessions from Brussels, Brussels might just say, well, look, we spent the last year and a half negotiating this. We're not going to rip it all up now. It's your problem, not ours.

KELLY: in the moments we have left, which is just 30 seconds or so, how worried are you? As a longtime watcher of UK politics, how worried are you about the future of your country?

PARKER: Well, I am worried. I'm worried about the future of the economy. I'm worried about the state of public discourse in this country, which is becoming much coarser. I'm worried about the possibility that Britain is deadlocked. And what I'm just very sad about is the loss of British influence and credibility in the world. I think it's a very sad moment for our country.

KELLY: George Parker. He's Financial Times political editor speaking to us from London. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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