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British Prime Minister Theresa May Postpones U.K. Vote On Brexit

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This was another tumultuous day in British politics. Parliament was headed toward a historic vote on a deal for Brexit tomorrow, but it faced almost certain defeat. So today, Prime Minister Theresa May pulled the plug.

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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow and not proceed to divide the House at this time.

SHAPIRO: That leaves the U.K. uncertain about how it will leave the European Union as the March 29 deadline for the country's exit draws closer. NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt is with us again. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Rough day for the prime minister. She's been working on this deal to leave the EU for two years. Her ministers and she had been saying the vote would definitely take place tomorrow. How does she explain this about-face?

LANGFITT: Well, Ari, she said what everybody kind of knew, and that is she did not have the votes, which is an understatement. People thought she could've lost this by up to a hundred votes, which would put her - would've put her job in even more jeopardy than it already is. It's not clear when or if she can actually get the support she needs, and there's no new date for a vote. So things are really, really uncertain right now.

SHAPIRO: Where does this leave Prime Minister May's plan for exiting the European Union, a plan that had a lot of support from other European countries?

LANGFITT: Yeah, they signed off on it. She has said she's going to go back to the European Union to explain why members of Parliament don't like her deal, which, by the way - the EU knows all this. But the EU has said it's not going to reopen this agreement. So it puts certainly the prime minister in a very difficult position.

Donald Tusk - he's the president of the European Council. He said today, we are ready to discuss how to facilitate U.K. ratification. That could mean some reassuring language - but definitely not reopening this thing. We have less than four months to go before the U.K. leaves the EU, and it's not really clear how this is going to play out. This could go well past Christmas. We're just not sure.

SHAPIRO: Well, remind us what makes this deal so unpopular. Why do so many people in Parliament oppose it?

LANGFITT: Yeah, well, if the U.K. and the EU can't figure out a way to avoid building new customs posts on the island of Ireland, as we've discussed before, one scenario would have Northern Ireland ending up in a much closer customs arrangement with the European Union than with the United Kingdom. Of course the United Kingdom - Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. And the U.K. wouldn't have any unilateral way to end this, so they're afraid that they could kind of get stuck in this arrangement for a long time.

Now, many British politicians understandably see this as undermining basically the union of the United Kingdom. Now, Nigel Dodds is a deputy leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party. This is what he had to say in the House of Commons today.

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NIGEL DODDS: Does she not get it by now that the withdrawal agreement legally binding text is unacceptable to this House? And she cannot pretend going on defending the deal when she knows that if the vote had taken tomorrow, it would've been overwhelmingly defeated.

SHAPIRO: So, Frank, explain what options Theresa May has now. It seems unlikely that she can get the support to pass this deal, and the EU says they're not open to negotiating a different deal. What can she do?

LANGFITT: A lot of people think that she's playing for time. I was talking to Anand Menon, and he's professor of European politics at King's College in London. And he thinks what she's going to do is go back to Brussels and get the EU basically to spell out that they won't give a better deal to any different prime minister, and that could help her fend off her many potential challengers. And then what she might do is turn around and pressure members of Parliament and basically say, you know, if you don't take this deal, my deal, you risk leaving the EU with no deal at all, leading to an economic calamity. And here's what Anand Menon said.

ANAND MENON: If she decides that actually we're not going to have this vote until January, that really does increase the pressure because we're getting to the point at which no deal is looking increasingly likely just by mistake because we're getting so close to that legal date of the 29th of March. At that point, it will be this deal or no deal.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, Frank, how much of a threat is this to Prime Minister May's leadership?

LANGFITT: It's tough. Brexiteers in her own party have been threatening for months to challenge her. Labour has also threatened, but it says it's not going to call a no-confidence vote unless it knows it has a good chance of winning, which it doesn't at the moment.

SHAPIRO: NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt, thank you.

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