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British Prime Minister Theresa May's Allies Are Trying To Sell The 'Brexit' Deal


British Prime Minister Theresa May is trying to drive an unpopular Brexit divorce agreement through Parliament this month. Few seem to like the deal, but its failure could trigger political chaos.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has been going to town hall meetings outside London. Here's his story on how May's allies are trying to sell the deal to a skeptical public.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Bim Afolami didn't tout all the great things the deal might do. Instead, Afolami, a 32-year-old member of Parliament in May's Conservative Party, emphasized what the agreement would prevent - the United Kingdom crashing out of the European Union, which the Bank of England says could make the U.K. economy more than 9 percent smaller than if it had stayed in the EU.

BIM AFOLAMI: That just gives a sense of the scale of calamity if we end up crashing out of the European Union without a deal at the end of March next year. If any of you lose your job because of a chaotic no-deal and come to me afterwards and say, well, why did you allow this to happen? You know, that isn't what I want on my conscience.

LANGFITT: Most in the crowd this evening in Harpenden, a commuter town north of London, seemed unpersuaded. They oppose May's deal and Brexit. Instead, most in the audience want a so-called people's vote, including an option to stay in the EU. Here's one of the attendees, Sara Rumberg.

SARA RUMBERG: I'm just wondering what we can possibly do to kind of make you represent us in the way that we are all telling you that we wish to be represented - 67 percent of us...


LANGFITT: One audience member said many people saw Brexit as a protest vote against the country's political class and never grasped the consequences. Now that voters know more, why not hold another referendum. Afolami responded like this.

AFOLAMI: I think this is quite dangerous territory because if you believe in democracy, you have to take at face value that people take that seriously when they go to the ballot box. You can't say with some things, oh, well, they didn't know what they were voting for - oh, sometimes they did. In a democracy, we trust citizens to do that.

PAUL DECORT: My name's Paul Decort. Which lie told to the British people in 2016 was the worst?

LANGFITT: Decort is referring to the widespread perception in the crowd and beyond that the Brexit campaign misled voters on a mind-bogglingly complex issue. Afolami, who voted remain, said some Brexit promises weren't realistic.

AFOLAMI: That you can have all the benefits of the European Union and not be in it is what I call sort of idealized Brexit. We know now it doesn't exist.

And I think that what's happened with this agreement and the debate over the last few weeks is that sort of utopia has collided with reality. And people have worked out that if you want to disentangle yourself from something that you've been part of for 45 years, it's pretty hard.

LANGFITT: Someone asked Afolami if he'd push for the prime minister's resignation if Parliament defeats the deal this month.

AFOLAMI: I won't. To throw in a sort of Conservative Party psychodrama at this point in our nation's history, in my view, would be unwise.

LANGFITT: At a second meeting in the town of Hitchin, Afolami did encounter Brexit voters like Wilfred Aspinall, who wants to leave the EU but is against the prime minister's deal because it would require the U.K. to remain inside the European Union until both sides can find a way to avoid new customs posts on the Irish border.

WILFRED ASPINALL: They can keep delaying it and delaying it and delaying it. The greatest fear is that we could be stuck in no man's land.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you very much for your time.

AFOLAMI: Thank you.

LANGFITT: At evening's end, most people still seemed to disagree with Afolami but respected him for doing a town hall, which is not common in the U.K.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you for your coming and sticking your head up. That's a sight to see.

LANGFITT: Afterward, I asked Afolami if the prime minister's Brexit deal will pass.

AFOLAMI: If you are looking at the way things are right now, it doesn't look like it's going to pass.

LANGFITT: And then what'll happen?

AFOLAMI: Who knows?

LANGFITT: How concerned are you?

AFOLAMI: I'm very concerned about it. It's going to be a very, very difficult time. I mean, I think - I don't like to use the word crisis, but I think you're getting near a constitutional crisis. And so, you know, we will see.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Harpenden, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.