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Amid Post-Brexit Vote Turmoil, PM Pick Could Narrow Down To 2 Women

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After the most tumultuous week in British politics since the end of World War II, it looks like the prime minister's race could come down to two women. They are the Home Secretary Theresa May and Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom. If one of them wins, it would only be the second time a woman has led the United Kingdom. The first, of course, was Margaret Thatcher.

Meanwhile, the British seem to be conflicted about leaving the EU, with more protests in the streets. To catch us up on events in Britain, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, our new London correspondent. He joins us on the line now. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So let's talk about these two women who have emerged as the front-runners. How'd they get there?

LANGFITT: Well, here's the quick recap for people who are maybe a little confused from last week. As you remember, London Mayor Boris Johnson - he was assumed to be the next prime minister. Everybody in the country thought that was going to happen. He helped lead the campaign to vote to leave the EU. But he had two problems. One is that nobody really thinks Johnson actually wanted to leave the EU. And this was just a political strategy to cast himself as sort of the defender of the little guy. And then, of course, people actually voted for a Brexit, so it was a huge miscalculation.

Johnson didn't really have a plan as to what to do next. And then, last week, his key supporter, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, stabbed him in the back on Thursday morning and said that Johnson was unfit to lead. And that kind of Shakespearean drama kind of really opened up the field for May and Leadsom.

MARTIN: What do you know about May and Leadsom? What kind of leaders are they?

LANGFITT: Well, first, I think we want to distinguish a little bit. May is clearly the front-runner right now, already appears to have the support of more than 100 conservative members of Parliament. She is the home secretary, which means she deals with things like immigration, domestic security. She's 59 years old, seen also as steady, if unexciting kind of hand. But right now, given what's been going on in British politics, unexciting sounds very appealing to people....

MARTIN: Yeah, right.

LANGFITT: ...A little bit of certainty, not the circus that we had, certainly in the last few days. And then in terms of Leadsom, she used to work as a banker at Barclays, the U.K. bank. She doesn't have the support that May has at the moment, but it's still early. And one difference between them is that Leadsom is hard-core about leaving the EU, and May actually was against a Brexit.

MARTIN: So what about all these people who are in the streets protesting the Brexit vote? This happened just yesterday. And millions have signed a petition to reconsider leaving the EU. Any chance Britain might not end up going through with this?

LANGFITT: At the moment, there seems to be no stomach for basically defying more than 17 million voters. They did have a referendum. But there's a big question as to when this would happen. And I don't think that any of this is certain. Keep in mind, the referendum was only advisory. So the government actually has to invoke what's called the Treaty of Lisbon to start this process. Now, I know when I say something like Treaty of Lisbon, that all sounds boring. But this is actually really interesting and really important.

May has said I'm not going to do this until at least next year so we can negotiate with the EU. Leadsom says she wants to break from the EU as soon as possible. But what some commentators here say is the U.K. government should go into a stall and get the best deal it can from the EU on future trade. Most in Parliament are actually against leaving, so it's possible there could be a long stall in this. It's going to be very interesting to see how this plays out. And like everything else in British politics these days, it's impossible to predict.

MARTIN: I imagine the British newspapers are having a field day with this story. Can you give us some of the highlights of what you have seen?

LANGFITT: Yes, I think that - (laughter) I think they're really enjoying this. And mostly they've focused on the psychodrama between these former allies, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. And, you know, last week when Gove announced that he was going to run for PM, he tried - that's prime minister - he was trying to be really self-deprecating, say - I don't have any charisma. I don't have any glamour. And this Guardian columnist wrote instead that Gove should realize that his brand is weapons-grade treachery after doing in Johnson.

MARTIN: Ouch.

LANGFITT: And there was another conservative member of Parliament who was talking to BBC recently and described the whole episode as making the "House Of Cards" look like "Teletubbies." So it - and none of that - I mean, that all seems pretty accurate, actually, living here.

MARTIN: Wow. NPR's Frank Langfitt keeping us apprised of everything happening in British politics. Thanks so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.