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What's Next For The U.K. Government And Its Plan To Leave The EU


British Prime Minister Theresa May is reshuffling her Cabinet. That's because some of her top government ministers have resigned over her approach to Brexit, or how to leave the European Union. David Davis, the minister leading the Brexit effort, and Foreign Minister Boris Johnson are both out. Yesterday, May addressed Parliament.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: This is the Brexit that is in our national interest. It is the Brexit that will deliver on the democratic decision of the British people. It is the right Brexit deal for Britain, and I commend this statement to the house.


KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt has been following all of this from London.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So these are important Cabinet members. What is it about Theresa May's approach to Brexit that is so upsetting to them?

LANGFITT: Well, they really disagree with what she just said. They look at it and they call it a semi-Brexit, that it's too soft; it's not having the sharp break with the European Union that voters - at least, to the minds of Brexiteers here - they think voted for. Now, under May's plan, the U.K. would continue to submit to EU rules on trading goods and agricultural products. And the reason she wants to do this is to stay inside the EU market, avoid tariffs, which would protect some British jobs and also protect British businesses. Now, you have critics like Boris Johnson, and he says, you know, the whole point of Brexit was to take back control and sovereignty from the European Union so that Britain could make its own rules, do new trade deals with other countries. And in his resignation letter, he said, quote, "we are truly headed for the status of a colony." So it's that kind of language again coming from a former empire.

KING: All right. So what does that mean for Theresa May's ability to win support for her Brexit plan? Are there other people in place who do support her?

LANGFITT: There are. And at the moment - and I want to really emphasis (ph) the moment - it seems that there are. What we're waiting to see here is a process in which members of Parliament would call for a vote of no confidence. You'd need 48 to hold to call for that vote. The numbers aren't there yet. May says even if there is that vote against her, she would fight it, and there's a good possibility she still might win. What this shows, though, is this is a deeply divided government as it is beginning to enter into tough negotiations with the European Union. Prime Minister May was already weak. This would wound her - this does wound her further. And time's kind of running out to work out on a future trade deal with the EU. Remember; Britain is supposed to leave the EU next March.

KING: Well, it sounds like you'd make the argument that Theresa May is being pragmatic. Do the critics of her plan have a better plan?

LANGFITT: Not that wouldn't come with big economic costs. And this kind of gets down to the nub of the issue. You know, driving for a hard Brexit would mean no access to the EU market and would hurt companies here, would cost jobs. And politics talk - politicians here often talk of making Brexit a success, but it seems near impossible without paying either a big economic or a domestic political price here in the United Kingdom, so there're really no good choices. And even if May is pushed out, you know, the prime minister's job, Noel, over the last couple of years - it's really proven to be a poisoned chalice since the Brexit referendum. And you have to wonder, would it be wise, even if May leaves, for someone to actually go for it?

KING: What are European Union officials saying about this very public fight that's playing out in Britain?

LANGFITT: There are a lot of eye rolls over in Brussels, as you might imagine. They've hold - held off on official comment at the moment. But what May is asking for here - even though it's a soft Brexit, it still violates the fundamental rules of being inside the European Union, which means you don't get any access to the single market unless you accept free movement from EU citizens. And the U.K. won't accept that because that's people - that's one of the reasons people were voting for Brexit in the first place. Now, yesterday, Donald Tusk - he's the president of the European Council - he tweeted this. He said, politicians come and go, but the problems they have created for people remain; I can only regret that the idea of Brexit has not left with Davis and Johnson, who just resigned, but who knows? So there's still apparently some hope in Brussels that Brexit will eventually collapse.

KING: You've been covering this from the beginning. Really quickly - what is the one big lesson here?

LANGFITT: You can't have your cake and eat it, too. People voted for Brexit to limit immigration, which is, of course, really relevant to American politics. But to do so means they're going to pay an economic price, and many politicians and business here don't want that, and they're really stuck in a jam.

KING: Frank, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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