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U.K. Lawmakers Set To Cast Vote On Brexit Deal

14 hours ago
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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

On Tuesday, the British Parliament will cast one of its biggest votes in decades - the decision whether to support Prime Minister Theresa May's deeply unpopular deal to leave the European Union or reject it, as expected, and risk plunging the United Kingdom into political chaos or more chaos than it's already in. For more on the vote and the stakes, we turn now to NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Hi, Frank. Thanks for joining us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So remind us why is the prime minister's Brexit divorce agreement expected to fail?

LANGFITT: Well Sarah, most members of Parliament are against it. And the biggest reason is that it could keep the United Kingdom closely aligned, practically, in some ways, in the European Union for years to come and prevent the U.K. from moving forward. Now, the reason May has had to cut this deal is because the European Union says it can't leave until it solves the biggest sort of conundrum, which is how to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.

MCCAMMON: And if the deal does fail, what's likely to happen next?

LANGFITT: You know, it really depends on the size of the defeat and their whole range of possibilities, which is what makes this so uncertain and risky. If it's 20 to 30 votes, May is hoping that the EU might offer some words of assurance that the U.K. won't be trapped inside the EU for years. But that's unlikely to win over many members of Parliament. If it's a big loss, Jeremy Corbyn - he's the head of the opposition Labour Party. He could call for a vote of no confidence in the U.K. government - in May's government. And what he wants to do is force a general election, try to topple May and her Conservative Party.

Now, Parliament could also move to seize control of the whole Brexit process and hold what are called nonbinding votes on what's next. And that could include everything from another type of deal with the EU, a vote to delay Brexit or even a call for second referendum.

MCCAMMON: So what is the likelihood that voters in the U.K. will get a second chance to vote on Brexit?

LANGFITT: It's probably more possible now than it's been before because the U.K. political system could be headed for paralysis, and it appears there's almost no majority in Parliament for anything else. Many people, though, would be wary about taking this back to a popular vote. Now, on Friday, I was in this place called Lowestoft. It's a town on the east coast of England. I was talking to Peter Aldous. He's a member of Parliament and May's Conservative Party who represents the area. And he actually voted to remain in the EU in 2016. But he told me a second referendum could really undermine faith in the democratic system.

PETER ALDOUS: To suddenly turn around within 2 1/2, 3 years and say, we're not going to do this, I think a lot of people will be seriously aggrieved and will say, what is that about? What is democracy about? We voted for that? It didn't happen.

MCCAMMON: OK. So he's kind of getting out that between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place feeling.

LANGFITT: And, also, Sarah, the idea that, you know, with democracy, you don't get do-overs on votes you don't like.

MCCAMMON: Right. And there is talk - right? - of just the U.K. walking away from the European Union on the Brexit deadline at the end of March with no future agreement as to what comes next. What's the likelihood of that happening? And what would that even mean?

LANGFITT: You know, Sarah, that's the one thing that most of Parliament can actually agree on because it would be seen as a self-inflicted economic wound. You could get tariffs, customs checks, health checks popping up on the border with Europe for the first time in decades because, up until now, it's been seamless trade - could get miles of trucks lined up at the Port of Dover to get across the channel. And they could really damage U.K. and European businesses. Now, I was talking to a guy named James Hookham. He's with the U.K. Freight Transport Association, and I asked him if the government or business were really prepared for what people call here a no-deal Brexit.

JAMES HOOKHAM: None of us are ready. Business isn't ready. The honest thing is government is ready, and it will be government agencies of one sort or another that will dictate what goes through the borders. We may well end up having to have a more formalized border arrangement. We would just like a little bit more time to get ready for it.

LANGFITT: And if that were to happen, Sarah, which I got to say does not seem likely, many here would see it as a complete failure of the British political system.

MCCAMMON: Well, Frank, thanks for following this. Thanks for talking with us.

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