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‘Political meltdown’ grips UK after Theresa May’s Brexit defeat

The United Kingdom continues to face political turmoil over Brexit, as Prime Minister Theresa May failed to find enough support in Parliament for her amended agreement with the European Union. Judy Woodruff talks to Sir Peter Westmacott, former British ambassador to the U.S., about the most likely courses of action now, May’s “extremely fragile” majority and why Brexit matters across the globe.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we continue our look at today's vote and where the U.K. goes from here with Sir Peter Westmacott. He had a 40-year career in the British Diplomatic Service and he served as his country's ambassador to the United States.

    Sir Peter Westmacott, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, what does today's Parliament vote, rejecting this latest plan, what does it mean for the prospects of Britain leaving the E.U.? Is it now more likely or less likely?

  • Peter Westmacott:

    Well, we are now in a state of some political meltdown, as your correspondent was just explaining.

    I think at the moment it means that it is less likely that we leave on the 29th of March, as scheduled, because of today's vote, which was resoundingly against Theresa May's package, but also because, tomorrow, parliamentarians are very likely to vote heavily against the idea of leaving with no deal.

    So, if you haven't got Theresa May's deal, and you haven't got no deal, then what have you got? Answer, on the third day, on Thursday, there will be a vote about whether to ask for an extension of the 29th of March deadline from the European Commission.

    And at the moment, that is what is most likely to happen in the near future. So I think leaving on the 29th of March is feeling a little less likely than it was before tonight's vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you're saying parliamentarians tomorrow likely to say, OK, we need some kind of deal if we're going the leave, the question is, what does it look like?

  • Peter Westmacott:

    Well, it's not even as clear as that, I'm afraid, Judy.

    What the parliamentarians will like say is, we don't like the idea of what is crashing out with no deal, because it would be chaotic in a whole lot of different ways. And neither the European Union nor the United Kingdom is ready for that.

    But what they're not saying is what they would like, and that's part of the prime minister's frustration. She rushed off to Strasbourg over the weekend to try and put a few improvements to her package, but, unfortunately, without checking first with her own law officer, the attorney general, thought that the package would do the trick.

    And he then opined this morning, saying it doesn't give the legal guarantees that she had hoped for. And so result was the Parliament said, this isn't good enough. So we're a bit stuck in that sense.

    The most likely thing, therefore, is extending the timetable, if the European side will agree. And a lot of the signs today — this evening — since the vote, are that the European Commission and the European member states are not giving this away for nothing, that they will have their own views as to how long the extension might be.

    And there may be some conditions that are not to the liking of the United Kingdom. So you could still end up crashing out, but it feels to me it is not so likely that it will happen on the 29th of March because there is likely to be a vote for an extension, if the Europeans agree to it, on Thursday.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Peter Westmacott, why has this been so messy and so difficult? What's at the core of what's going on here?

  • Peter Westmacott:

    The core of it, Judy, is that it was always going to be very, very difficult. You can decide if you have got a box of eggs in front of you whether you want to scramble them, fry them, poach them or whatever it is. But once you have scrambled them, unscrambling eggs is really difficult and a hard thing to do.

    And many of us, of course, said that at the time. But fast-forward to the results of the referendum. But one of the problems is that Theresa May decided that, in order to get herself a fresh mandate and a bigger majority, she would hold a general election, when she didn't need to, 18 months or so ago.

    And she lost her majority with it. And so now she's totally dependent on getting any business done in the House of Commons on 10 votes from Northern Irish members of Parliament. And, frankly, it's clear that if the law officer this morning, if the attorney general had said it was OK legally, probably, those 10 Democratic Unionist Party M.P.s would have said, we can live with it, and probably enough of the Conservative Brexiteers would have gone along with it as well.

    So she is somewhat held hostage by these 10 votes in Northern Ireland because of the fact that she lost her majority earlier on. So that's made the government's position politically extremely fragile all the way through.

    Added to that, I think the Conservative Party, never mind the majority, or the lack of, has had real difficulty working out amongst themselves what sort of Brexit they want. They have been riven in two, indecisive, unable to sort things out.

    And so there's been a great deal of muddle over the last 2.5 years, to the frustration, I have to say, of a lot of the British people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And is that any one person's fault, or is it just the fault of the system?

  • Peter Westmacott:

    Well, you can point the finger of blame on lots of people.

    You can point the finger of blame, if you wish to, at David Cameron for having called the referendum in the first place, thinking that he'd be able to win it if it happened. You can point the finger of blame, if you want to, to the prime minister, because she is the head of the government which has conducted these negotiations, to no avail, over the last 2.5, three years.

    Or you can point the finger of blame to some very hard-line Brexiteers, who promised a certain number of things at the time of the referendum and afterwards which turned out to be neither true nor deliverable.

    And they have hung in there, making the prime minister's life really extremely difficult. So — and you can probably think of a whole lot of other people who you can blame for it. Some people would say the commission are being intransigent. I don't actually buy that, because it was the British people who asked to leave.

    And we're the ones who brought this upon ourselves. And we asked for this Irish backstop, which is the proximate cause of the defeat of the prime minister's package. And then we ask for it to be changed.

    So I think it's a little harsh to say that the people in Brussels have been inflexible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just very quickly, finally, why should the rest of the world pay close attention to this, the United States, the rest of the global economy?

  • Peter Westmacott:

    I think it matters to the United States for two principal reasons.

    One is that the United Kingdom is a very business-friendly economy, which is the obvious port of entry, especially for English-speaking peoples, to the European single market. And we have had lots of inward investment from companies building in the U.K., investing in the U.K. to get access to the E.U.

    And if that is taken away by the terms of the Brexit deal and — or no deal, that will be a problem. Secondly, I think the United Kingdom in the European Union is a force, if you like, for the anglophone world.

    It has been a means of trying to ensure that some of America's points of view, policies, preferences are transmitted to the European Union. And I think that could be lost when we leave, how we leave.

    And, thirdly, I think the European Union itself is weakened. Of course, I would say this, wouldn't I? but I hear it from my French and German and other friends. If the U.K. is no longer there, and the only two big powers in the European Union are France and Germany, who often find it difficult to agree on things, then I think the European Union is weaker.

    And the people who are rubbing their hands are the people who are in the Kremlin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are watching it all very closely.

    Peter Westmacott, we thank you.

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