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

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, Former British Ambassador
to the United States: 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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