British Parliament To Vote On Amendments To Brexit The U.K. parliament votes on the future path for Brexit Tuesday — whether to open the door to a delay, or press the European Union to compromise.
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British Parliament To Vote On Amendments To Brexit

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British Parliament To Vote On Amendments To Brexit

British Parliament To Vote On Amendments To Brexit

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the EU is in two months, and there is still no consensus on exactly how to make that happen. Prime Minister Theresa May has proposed her plan. Today lawmakers will vote on amendments to her proposal. From more, we go to NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we have been following this - as our listeners will know - for many, many months.

LANGFITT: We have.

MARTIN: We have. Is today the day that British parliamentarians finally settle on how the U.K. is going to leave?

LANGFITT: I would - Rachel, I would not go that far. However, what I would say is we could get a much clearer picture by the end of tonight what things look like. Basically, what they're trying to do here is take control of the process after Prime Minister May's bill went down and try to figure out where we go from here. Two big amendments to watch - one is designed to force the prime minister to ask the European Union to delay Brexit if she can't get this deal - that failed badly earlier - through Parliament by the 26 of February. The prime minister is backing a different amendment, and this one would provide support for her bill but only if they can find an alternative to the U.K. remaining in a customs arrangement with the EU. And that's, of course, to try to avoid having a hard border on the island of Ireland. So those are the two big ones to watch tonight.

MARTIN: All right. So as you just said, the first amendment asks for an extension of the whole process for Brexit.

LANGFITT: Yeah.

MARTIN: The other one tries to remove the Irish challenge. What is the impact if either of these amendments pass the House of Commons today?

LANGFITT: Well, if the first one passes and you get a possible - it leads towards a potential delay, it'd be a significant victory for people who want to stay in the European Union or want a closer relationship with the EU. The other amendment, if that passed, it would allow May to actually go back to Brussels and say, look; I have support for my Brexit deal, but you've got to work with me. You've got to make concessions on the Irish border to help me get it through Parliament back in London.

MARTIN: Right.

LANGFITT: But that amendment's chances of passage are not looking so good at the moment. There's a sign - Basically, in a sign of how incredibly divided Parliament is here, there's some Brexiteers, they say they won't support it 'cause it's not legally binding. So one of the great challenges she faces is, how does she get enough people here to support something that the EU will support back in Brussels?

MARTIN: All right. A pivotal figure in today's events is a guy named John Bercow. He is the speaker of the House of Commons. You've been doing some reporting on him. What can you tell us?

LANGFITT: He's a very divisive figure. He's humorous, pugnacious and loud. Listeners may recognize what sounds like a foghorn voice that he has. And that's where I begin my report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING MONTAGE)

JOHN BERCOW: Order.

Order.

Order.

(Yelling) Order.

LANGFITT: Today he plays a pivotal role. He'll choose which amendments Parliament will vote on, which could shape the path of Brexit. He spends much of his time trying to maintain order as members battle over the biggest issue the United Kingdom has faced in decades. Bercow is known for his lighthearted putdowns and a pension for polysyllabic words. Here's some of his more memorable lines as he's tried to calm the House of Commons' famously boisterous proceedings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING MONTAGE)

BERCOW: Mr. Angus Brendan MacNeil, calm yourself.

(LAUGHTER)

BERCOW: You may be a cheeky chappy, but you're also an exceptionally noisy one.

(LAUGHTER)

BERCOW: Get a grip of yourself, man.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah, yeah.

BERCOW: Calm. Take up yoga. You'll find it beneficial, man.

(LAUGHTER)

BERCOW: (Yelling) Order. You are a very over-excitable individual. You need to write out a thousand times, I will behave myself at Prime Minister's questions.

LANGFITT: To learn more about Bercow, I went to see his biographer.

Hi, Bobby. I'm Frank.

BOBBY FRIEDMAN: Hey. Great to meet you.

LANGFITT: Nice to meet you.

FRIEDMAN: Come on in.

LANGFITT: Bobby Friedman is a barrister. That's an attorney who works in the higher courts. Friedman is the author of "Bercow, Mr. Speaker: Rowdy Living In The Tory Party." While Bercow may sound to Americans like a quintessential British character, Friedman says his style of speech is actually an affectation.

FRIEDMAN: It's incredibly old-fashioned. As one person said to me, it's like he swallowed a dictionary, and then he spits it out again every time he speaks. And he will never use two words if he can use a thousand.

LANGFITT: Bercow grew up in north London, the son of a cab driver. Friedman thinks the future speaker, who stands about 5-foot-6, developed his gift of gab as a defense mechanism.

FRIEDMAN: He was bullied at school. He was relatively unpopular, but he was more intelligent than most of his bullies. And so he used the fact that he could speak and could do it better than others as a way of fighting back against them.

LANGFITT: While many who watch Parliament find Bercow entertaining, he is controversial. For instance, Bercow has faced bullying accusations himself. Vicky Ford, a member of Parliament, said she'd been a target.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICKY FORD: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I have heard the words stupid woman being used in this chamber about myself. And I'm afraid to say I've heard it from yourself in the speaker's chair. So Mr. Speaker, please, can we have an apology, draw a line against this and move on?

LANGFITT: Bercow denied it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERCOW: I say with absolute certainty it is not correct. I have not said that to or about the honorable lady.

LANGFITT: A recent inquiry into bullying in the House of Commons found a lack of support for victims and a culture that tried to cover it up. Bercow is what the British call a Marmite character. Like the yeasty spread some here put on toast, you either like him or loathe him. Again, his biographer Bobby Friedman.

FRIEDMAN: He's someone who has always rubbed people up the wrong way while simultaneously having a lot of supporters. But he does fall out with people very easily. He sometimes overspeaks. He's too critical.

LANGFITT: And more recently, has become the target of tough political criticism - Brexiteers have complained that Bercow, who's supposed to remain neutral as speaker, tore up Commons rules to try to help lawmakers who favor staying in the European Union. Adam Holloway, a fellow Conservative Party MP, confronted Bercow earlier this month in the House of Commons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM HOLLOWAY: We've all noticed, in recent months, a sticker in your car making derogatory comments about Brexit. No, this is a serious point about partiality.

LANGFITT: Bercow's acknowledged voting against Brexit. But he said Holloway had it wrong. The sticker wasn't on his car but his wife's.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERCOW: And I'm sure the honorable gentleman wouldn't suggest for one moment...

(LAUGHTER)

BERCOW: ...That a wife is somehow the property or chattel...

(CHEERING)

BERCOW: ...Of her husband.

MARTIN: What a fascinating character, Frank Langfitt. And he's going to be at the center of the Brexit events today?

LANGFITT: He will. He's going to choose the amendments, and that could have a huge influence on where everything heads next. So people will be watching very carefully to see which amendments he chooses and which ones pass.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thanks so much, Frank. We appreciate it.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "WESTERN ISLES")

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