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After contentious Brexit vote, May to return to EU in hopes of a better deal

Another contentious debate over Brexit concluded in Parliament Tuesday with an agreement to send British Prime Minister Theresa May back to the European Union to renegotiate terms of the UK's withdrawal. The plan May proposed earlier this month was decisively defeated, and the deadline for Brexit is now only two months away. Judy Woodruff talks to special correspondent Ryan Chilcote, in London.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The British Parliament debated a number of proposals today on how to proceed with regard to leaving the European Union.

    In the end, they voted to authorize the prime minister to go back to the European Union to try to get a better deal.

    Special correspondent Ryan Chilcote is in London, and has our report.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Another raucous Brexit debate in the British Parliament. This time, up for consideration, two competing paths for the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union.

    It came exactly two months before Britain has to leave the E.U., and two weeks after Prime Minister Theresa May's plan suffered the worst parliamentary defeat in British history. Since then, members from all sides have been offering ideas.

    Today, they voted on more than a half-a-dozen proposals.

  • Theresa May:

    I believe that we are within reach of a deal that this House can stand behind. But the days ahead are crucial.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    The first major proposal today, keep the prime minister in charge of the process, but send her back to the E.U. to renegotiate better terms.

    The second alternative, give May another month to secure a deal to Parliament's liking. Failing that, turn the future of Brexit over to Parliament and extend the deadline, something she says would be a betrayal.

  • Theresa May:

    I'm not prepared to stand still and put at risk either the Brexit the people of this country voted for or the economic success the people of this country have worked so hard to secure.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    May has refused to step aside, but acknowledged that Parliament must have more say in the final deal. The first plan, keeping May in charge of Brexit, calls for her to seek a better agreement from the E.U. on what is called the Irish backstop.

    Right now, Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom and still part of the European Union, and the Republic of Ireland, also part of the E.U., have no land border, so cars and goods can cross easily. May's original Brexit plan would have kept that border open when the U.K. leaves the E.U., as it has been ever since the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to the troubles in Ireland 20 years ago.

    But some Conservative politicians have rejected part of the agreement focused on the border, saying it could leave Britain subject to European Union trade rules indefinitely. In an effort to win over those Conservatives today, May pledged to do something she has, up to now, said will never work.

  • Theresa May:

    Negotiating such a change will not be easy. But I believe that with a mandate from this House and supported by the attorney general, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, I can secure such a change in advance of our departure from the E.U.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    The European Union has refused to budge on the backstop. Less than an hour after May's comments today, E.U. officials shot it down once again.

    Still, there is growing concern that if Britain crashes out of the E.U. on March 29 without a formal agreement, food shortages, plummeting house prices and economic distress could follow. That's why some lawmakers, including opposition and Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, are trying to force May's government to delay Britain's exit from the E.U.

  • Jeremy Corbyn:

    Labor will today back amendments that attempt to rule out this government's reckless option of allowing the U.K. to crash out without a deal. Everyone, everyone, bar the prime minister, accepts that this would be disastrous.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Delaying Brexit would mean extending the so-called Article 50 that triggered the withdrawal process. But Corbyn rebuffed efforts from his own party to call for a second Brexit referendum.

  • Man:

    The ayes to the right 317, the no's to the left 301. So the ayes have it.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Against all odds, the prime minister succeeded in mustering the support she need for the idea of her going back to the E.U. to renegotiate the deal. It's her first win in a long while. She will be hoping the E.U.'s insistence that it wouldn't negotiate anymore was just a bluff.

    So, success today for the prime minister, but definitely not an unqualified success, because, at the end of the day, she has to get the European Union to agree to change a deal that she already agreed to — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Ryan, what are the prospects then of the E.U. being willing to renegotiate, and what are her prospects of getting a better deal for leaving the E.U.?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Well, listen, if you look to their — listen to their rhetoric, if you listen to the E.U.'s rhetoric, the prospects are very dim.

    They have been very clear, even after this vote, in saying that there will be no change to the deal. She agreed to it. They agreed to it. It's done, as far as they're concerned.

    And, remember, we're talking about 27 countries on the other side of the negotiating table. So it's difficult to see how that could change, but what she will be betting on is that, when she goes back, she will say, look, I finally showed you that I can get a majority in the Parliament for a deal. We can agree amongst ourselves on something, and that's the deal that we have already agreed with you, if you agree to change this one little thing, she will describe it as, and that's the Irish backstop.

    But, again, they have said no change to that. She's just hoping that she's — that they're bluffing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Ryan, what happens if she doesn't get a better deal? Then what?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Well, if she doesn't get a better deal, then things get complicated. She will come back to the house — the houses of Parliament on February the 13th. That's what she's talking about now, is coming back for another meaningful vote, where they will vote on whatever she has, whether it was the old deal or a slightly tweaked deal with some maybe declarations on the side of it, but without any legal changes to it, and see if she can get that through.

    Of course, you know, she is unlikely to get it through. And then she will have to negotiate again with all the members of Parliament. And then we will be looking at other options, including running down the clock closer to March the 29th, when, no matter what, the U.K., as things stand now, has to leave the European Union.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And very quickly, Ryan, prospects for another referendum in the U.K. on this?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Very interesting.

    Doesn't seem to be the appetite for that right now. There was an initiative today that was voted on in the houses of Parliament, and the parliamentarian said, no, that's not something we want to consider right now.

    I think the most likely thing is that if she doesn't have a deal by March the 29th, you would start to see some changes in the Parliament trying to either extend the U.K.'s relationship with the E.U., so they can continue to negotiate, or maybe even put it back to the people for a vote, but not right now.

    Right now, it is basically, Theresa May lives another day to continue her fight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ryan Chilcote, reporting for us from the Parliament, thank you, Ryan.

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