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Turmoil Over Brexit Continues As 2 British Cabinet Ministers Resign


Now to the U.K., where Prime Minister Theresa May is trying to save her government. Two cabinet ministers have quit rather than support her Brexit plans. Here's the prime minister speaking today before raucous members of the House of Commons.




MAY: We do not agree about the best way of delivering our shared commitment to honor the results of the referendum, but I want to recognize...

SHAPIRO: She went on to recognize the work of Boris Johnson, who resigned earlier today as foreign secretary. His departure follows David Davis, who quit yesterday as secretary of state for exiting the European Union. To hear what these resignations could mean for Theresa May and for Brexit negotiations, we turn now to George Parker, political editor for the Financial Times. Thanks for being with us once again.


SHAPIRO: So this was a divide over Theresa May's plans for Brexit. How much do we actually know about what those plans are?

PARKER: Well, Britain voted two years ago to leave the European Union, but there was much less clarity about what the British people meant when they said that. So for two years, the British government has been arguing amongst itself on what exactly Brexit means. And last Friday, ministers agreed to a plan which broadly amounts to a soft Brexit sort of approach where Britain would stay quite close to the EU economically to limit the damage of Brexit.

And that's infuriated some of the more ideological Brexiteers in the government including Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and David Davis, who's the Brexit secretary. They felt it doesn't deliver a real Brexit in their view. And as a result, they resigned, plunging Theresa May's government, as you were saying, into chaos.

SHAPIRO: This has been a divide within the Tory Party virtually since the referendum. So why has this been such a moment of crisis?

PARKER: Well, basically Britain leaves the European Union in March 2019, so time's running out. And it's a remarkable thing that for two years, Britain hasn't had its own vision of what Brexit would look like, and the people on the other side of the English Channel are looking at us and thinking, what on Earth's going on?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PARKER: So finally last Friday, the British government agreed amongst itself what it wants, but that only leaves a few months now to negotiate a final deal with the people on the other side of the table, the EU. Theresa May felt she couldn't leave it any longer. She kicked the can down the road, as the jargon goes, for a couple of years. And finally she had to confront her cabinet, and she had to choose between an ideological Brexit favored by people like Boris Johnson or one which limits the economic damage. And she went for the latter option, and that's provoked these resignations today.

SHAPIRO: How much of a crisis are these resignations?

PARKER: Well, it's a pretty big thing when your foreign secretary resigns and the minister in charge of overseeing Brexit resigns. Theresa May did her usual thing at the House of Commons - dispatch box today. She ploughed on. It looked like nothing had actually happened. She's very resolute and determined, just keeps her head down and carries on.

SHAPIRO: But while she was delivering that message, people were jeering and hollering and cackling at her.

PARKER: They were. And, you know, she was there saying, well, we have a lively discussion around the cabinet table.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PARKER: And everyone was laughing about that. And she was saying that some of these ideas that they're going to put to the European Union are quite challenging, which is code for the fact that people in Brussels probably won't accept the British plan even though it's gone too far already for people like Boris Johnson. So it's created a - obviously an atmosphere of complete turmoil at Westminster and chaos. And in those circumstances, there are people now starting to talk about whether Theresa May will face some kind of leadership challenge.

There are 48 names needed - that's 15 percent of the Conservative parliamentary party - to trigger a vote of no confidence. And the rumor flying around Westminster today is that the magic number 48 has almost but not yet been reached, in which case Theresa May really will be fighting for her political life.

SHAPIRO: How are people in the U.K. reacting to this extremely chaotic day in their government?

PARKER: I think the British people are just frankly fed up with Brexit. They voted for Brexit two years ago, and I think there's a general view in the public even among people who voted stay in the European Union that they're fed up to the back teeth of talking about it two years later on. And they want the politicians to just get this over and done with so they can get on with their lives.

And I think people would just look at this and be absolutely astonished that the government now is falling apart just at the moment where Theresa May looked like she might have finally forged a cabinet consensus. And people will start to ask the question I think, you know, will this actually happen? That's the really big question that flows out of today's ructions at the top of the government.

Does Theresa May have the authority to actually deliver this Brexit in time for March 2019, at which point we're due to leave - because if she doesn't, you know, will she have to be forced to go into a general election? Will that throw the whole Brexit process up in the air? Who knows? So we're heading into a very unstable and uncertain period in British politics.

SHAPIRO: That's Financial Times political editor George Parker. Good to talk to you again.

PARKER: A pleasure.

SHAPIRO: And my co-host Mary Louise Kelly is in the U.K. this week reporting on the implications of Brexit uncertainty and how the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. is changing as President Trump turns American policy inward. Trump will travel to Britain on Thursday, and that's when you'll hear Mary Louise hosting the show from London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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