STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
British Prime Minister Theresa May is delaying a vote in Parliament on her Brexit plan. She's putting it off amid warnings that her proposal would lose. You can hear May's critics who guffawed today when the prime minister stepped before lawmakers to speak.
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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: While there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal...
MAY: On one issue - on one issue, the Northern Ireland backstop...
MAY: ...There remains widespread and deep concern. As a result, if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow, the deal would be rejected...
MAY: ...By a significant margin.
INSKEEP: OK, so what now? NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt is on the line. Hi there, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK. So she said delay the vote. But I'm reminded...
INSKEEP: ...Of that old cartoon where a guy is trying to set an appointment for a meeting. And he says, how about never; is never good for you? Is this really just delayed?
LANGFITT: I think it is delayed. The question is, for how long? And the other question is, what is she going to be doing in Brussels? I mean, I think to some extent, May was bowing to reality here. She was looking at a - potentially a huge loss maybe - up to maybe a hundred votes or more. This could've easily cost her her job. And it almost seems like she's trying to live to fight another day here. And it's not certain - she wasn't very clear about when she might return and bring this back to the House of Commons.
INSKEEP: OK. So you just raised another thing. You said, what does she do in Brussels? She said that instead of there - or having put off this vote, that's going to give her time to go to Brussels, to the European Union, and ask for what?
LANGFITT: That's - that was a really strange part. Well, as, Steve, she talked about going and speaking to Brussels - but at the same time, as she said before, this is the best deal we're going to get. So I don't know exactly what the conversation is going to go like there. And I should mention something. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker - he said over and over again they're finished negotiating. The EU is finished negotiating. And a commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva - she was speaking today earlier about this. And this is what she said.
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MINA ANDREEVA: As President Juncker said, this deal is the best and only deal possible. We will not renegotiate. Our position has therefore not changed. And as far as we are concerned, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on the 29 of March 2019.
INSKEEP: Although, Theresa May did talk about going to Brussels and getting some kind of better guarantees. What are the concerns with this deal that she's trying to address?
LANGFITT: Well, the concern is what she mentioned earlier, as you were talking, what they call the Northern Ireland backstop. And the way that that would work is if the two sides - the European Union, the United Kingdom - can't come to an agreement on a new free-trade deal or how to avoid a new border - hard border with customs posts on the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland would stay sort of in a customs arrangement with the European Union. Now, that's very upsetting to the United Kingdom - many people here because it would seem to divide the United Kingdom. So they're looking for some kind of guarantee that the European Union is not going to invoke this and that would maybe allow the United Kingdom to get out of it at some point. The real fear here in the United Kingdom is that they - Northern Ireland gets stuck inside the EU for - EU in perpetuity. And so that really is, politically, really difficult.
INSKEEP: Oh, and then the Brexiteers are trapped in a way because they would have to take whatever European deal there is.
LANGFITT: It is, and - but the other thing, also, is this is for Northern Ireland. You know, this comes down a lot to the issue of sovereignty, Steve. And the idea of separating - this is the United Kingdom. It is four - these four, what they even call here, countries - Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. And the idea that one of them would be separated off and have a closer economic relationship with the European Union is just too much for a lot of people here to take, understandably.
INSKEEP: We heard a conservative MP on the program earlier today, Frank, who said that if Theresa May goes ahead with this vote and loses in a humiliating way, it could cost her her job; there could be a vote of no confidence. What about now that she's delayed it?
LANGFITT: Well, there's still a lot of talk about a vote of no confidence. So I think we're going to have to see what happens later this evening here in the United Kingdom and what happens tomorrow. Certainly, the opposition Labour Party has been talking about a no-confidence vote on her government. A lot of Tory Brexiteers have talked about a no-confidence vote on her. But we're going to have to see how it goes. She's certainly wounded, struggling. And we're going to have to - we're in uncharted territory. We haven't seen anything like this in decades in British politics.
INSKEEP: And we're less than four months from that deadline that was mentioned by the EU.
LANGFITT: We are.
INSKEEP: Frank, thanks so much - appreciate it.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.