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Britain's Prime Minister Survives Parliament's No-Confidence Vote


JOHN BERCOW: Ayes to the right, 306, the noes to the left, 325. So the noes have it. The noes have it. Unlock.


That is the sound of a raucous British Parliament, maybe even more raucous than usual, after Prime Minister Theresa May narrowly survived a vote of no confidence yesterday. She is clinging to power despite seeing her Brexit plan defeated earlier this week in one of the most crushing political blows for a British leader in modern memory. In the House of Commons, the prime minister vowed to engage other party leaders to try and find a Brexit compromise that Parliament would support.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: I do not take this responsibility lightly. And my government will continue its work to increase our prosperity, guarantee our security and to strengthen our union. And yes, we will also continue to work to deliver on the solemn promise we made to the people of this country to deliver on the result of the referendum and leave the European Union.

GREENE: That divorce from the EU is supposed to happen in March, leaving very little time to figure out how to avoid the chaos that could come. Now, joining me now is Bim Afolami. He is a Conservative member of Parliament. He voted in favor of Prime Minister May's Brexit plan and also supported her yesterday in that vote of no confidence. Welcome to the program. Thanks for joining us.

BIM AFOLAMI: Good morning.

GREENE: Forgive me for saying, I mean, your country has seemed in quite a political mess this week. I mean, these deep divisions...

AFOLAMI: Really, it all looks wonderful.

GREENE: It's wonderful. (Laughter).

AFOLAMI: (Laughter).

GREENE: I sense some sarcasm.

AFOLAMI: Quite, yeah.

GREENE: I mean, what do you do if you're the prime minister right now? I mean these divisions over Brexit seem so ingrained. How does she even begin new negotiations with this very short timeline?

AFOLAMI: I think that's a pretty good analysis. I think that the important thing for - for American listeners to appreciate is that Brexit is a very unusual political issue for this very reason. It cuts across party lines. You know, there are people on the Conservative Party who - in the Conservative Party who agree more with Labour - certain members of the Labour Party on Brexit than they do with people in their own party. And that applies on both sides of the Brexit equation, whether you were in favor of remaining in the EU when the referendum came or whether you wanted to leave.

And so it's very unusual, in our parliamentary system, to have an issue that cuts across parties. And that's the core problem that the prime minister has because our system, effectively, is very heavily whipped. And so when a prime minister - and we have a hung Parliament, so we don't have a natural majority - when a prime minister has to deal with an issue that cuts across party lines, you can see how that makes things inherently difficult.

GREENE: Well, do you see any specific concession or any changes she can make to this plan that would bring enough members of Parliament together to - to support this? I mean, what is a viable option here?

AFOLAMI: It looks difficult to sort of amend the plan in a way you might normally in politics, which is, you know, you change this particular clause or you change this particular section, right? That - that, I don't think, because of the scale of the defeat was quite big, I just don't think that'll do it. That means effectually, the prime minister and the government have two options. Option one is that they - they change the plan quite fundamentally.

And option two is there's a particular provision within the plan which is called the Northern Ireland backstop, which really deals with if - what happens in the event of the Northern Irish-Irish border in certain circumstances. Now, this has been the area that's attracted the most contention because in a sense, for Britain to be able to not fall into this sort of provision, it requires the European Union to agree - a free trade agreement with Britain. And that has caused a huge amount of controversy. So if we could somehow deal with that fundamental issue, that is another way in which we can get through this.

GREENE: Well, isn't there another option? I mean, you - you represent a lot of constituents in your part of the country who wanted to remain in the EU in the first place. And there seems to be some growing talk of an entirely new referendum. What - why would you not get behind that idea if so many of your voters wanted to stay in the Europe - in the European Union in the first place?

AFOLAMI: Well, yes, I'm a constituency member of Parliament. But I'm also a national. I've got a responsibility to the country. And I don't believe, if you - if you go down the route of having referendums - and I personally don't think they're a very good idea. But once you've gone through that, to then say, well, you know, we've tried it for a couple of years, it's all been a bit difficult; let's do it again, is something that is profoundly difficult for a lot of people, the majority of whom voted to leave.

They will say, we voted to leave. We gave the - our politicians a simple instruction, to get that done, and you've manifestly failed to do so. What that does to trust, not just in politicians themselves, but also to our political system, that if you vote for something very clearly, that you at least get that, I think that's very difficult. So really, I think it's incumbent upon all politicians of all sides of this house to work together to try and find a compromise solution that can pass.

GREENE: OK, you have said that the prime minister is facing some difficult odds. The deadline is coming. You're saying you don't want a second referendum. What are the biggest consequences, and you - as you see them, if a new plan does not get through Parliament and if Brexit goes forward?

AFOLAMI: So if - so what you mean is if Brexit goes forward, but without an agreement with the European Union.

GREENE: Right, what happens?

AFOLAMI: I think there are - really, it's bad for three main reasons. The first is economically, you would go from a situation of complete frictionless trade and interaction economically to something of of trade barriers that are akin to trade barriers we have with various countries all over the world that we don't trade very much with. That's bad economically.

It's bad for society because we're in a 52-48, you know, referendum. That's 48 percent of people. That 48 percent needs to be taken along with this decision and shown that we can do Brexit in a way that benefits the majority. And I think that that is not a good outcome. And I just think it's also bad for politics because I think people will start to see that, you know, our politicians failed them at this time.

GREENE: Bim Afolami is a Conservative member of the U.K. Parliament. Thanks so much.

AFOLAMI: No problem. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.