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U.K. Parliament Debates Latest Brexit Plan

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today is Brexit day, the day Prime Minister Johnson was finally supposed to get Parliament to approve his terms for taking the U.K. out of the European Union at the end of this month. It's turned into Groundhog Day. Parliament voted.

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JOHN BERCOW: The ayes to the right, 322. The noes to the left, 306.

SIMON: But that vote means more delay. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in London. Frank, thanks for being with us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: That vote we just heard wasn't on the terms of Britain's departure.

LANGFITT: No, it wasn't. So what it was was an amendment to make sure that all the legislation that actually has to get through by the end of this month to make the Brexit deadline would be approved before Parliament would be willing to approve the overall, you know, withdrawal agreement by Boris Johnson. And the fear was that this legislation could get bottled up or killed, and they would blow through the deadline. There'd be no-deal Brexit, which would cause a lot of - frankly, a lot of economic damage and a lot of political damage in this country.

Now, Scott, why did Parliament do this? At the heart of this is, frankly, distrust of Boris Johnson, the prime minister. If you remember last month, he suspended Parliament. He was taken to court. They found that it was illegal. They just don't trust him. And they were afraid that he might pull a fast one on them.

SIMON: Well, how did he respond?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, Parliament had actually passed a law saying that he has to send a letter late tonight if he can't get a deal through today. But Johnson was defiant. And he said this in the past. He will not do this. He will not go back to Brussels to ask for an extension. He said he'd rather be dead in a ditch. And this is what he said today in the House of Commons.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I will not negotiate a delay with the EU. And neither does the law compel me to do so. I will tell...

SIMON: Another showdown - I think that's the umpteenth time I've said this.

LANGFITT: It is.

SIMON: Do we see this as a showdown between Boris Johnson and the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, or Boris Johnson in the House of Commons?

LANGFITT: Well, Boris Johnson - it's against Boris Johnson and people who oppose Brexit, people who want to bring this issue back to the people for another vote and other people who are afraid he can't get it through in time and he's going to crash them out. That's their concern. And what Jeremy Corbyn says is, as many people do in the House of Commons, is that Boris doesn't have any choice. Prime Minister Johnson has got to do this. This is what Jeremy Corbyn said.

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JEREMY CORBYN: The prime minister must now comply with the law.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.

CORBYN: He can no longer use the threats of a no-deal crash-out to blackmail members to support his sellout deal.

LANGFITT: And Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party, he said that if Johnson thinks he is above the law, he's going to find himself back in court.

SIMON: Frank, it's been - what? - three years since the Brexit referendum.

LANGFITT: (Laughter) Almost three and a half.

SIMON: Will it be another three and a half years until we get some kind of resolution?

LANGFITT: No, but it's going to take a little bit longer than we thought when we began today. Parliament actually has anticipated this, what Boris johnson is doing, and they've put a - they have a court case against him. And I think that what's going to happen is on Monday, they're going to go back to court to compel him to ask for a delay from Brussels. If that doesn't work out, somebody else - perhaps John Bercow, the speaker of the House - could write that letter to Brussels. Johnson says he's going to try to bring this thing back - this bill - back this week, coming week, for approval. He may, in fact, have the votes to do it. But again, this is an incredibly contentious issue, Scott. There's a lot of distrust in Parliament. And I guess in some ways, I'm not surprised that this is proving so difficult to get through.

SIMON: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.