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NPR's Frank Langfitt reflects on covering a tumultuous seven years in the U.K.


The past seven years have been the most tumultuous in the United Kingdom since the end of World War II.


DAVID CAMERON: The British people have voted to leave the European Union, and their will must be respected.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Tonight, Prime Minister Boris Johnson now in intensive care less than 24 hours after being hospitalized in his battle with coronavirus.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A few moments ago, Buckingham Palace announced the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

DETROW: Frank Langfitt, our man in London, was there for it all. After five prime ministers and two monarchs, he is wrapping up his tenure in the United Kingdom. So we've got him on the line to try to make some sense of some of the history he's witnessed. Hey, Frank.


DETROW: So I want to start with this. You arrive in London in June 2016, a week before the Brexit vote. I blame you.

LANGFITT: You're not the only one. In other assignments I've had, big things have happened not long after I've arrived.

DETROW: It's a good streak. But let's rewind to that moment before all of this change. What do you recall Britain being like at that moment just before Brexit?

LANGFITT: I mean, it was a pretty normal place. It was considered a quiet - relatively quiet news posting. I was coming out of China and was worried there might not be that much to report about. Britain was still a part of the European Union, a massive single economic market of half a billion consumers. And the U.K., you've got to remember, Scott - this seems like a long time ago - it was synonymous with dull but dependable, methodical governance.

DETROW: So you're just settling in. The British voters surprise the world. What was that like?

LANGFITT: It was really wild. I mean, I awoke to the news in the morning and then ended up working 30 days straight, traveling all over the country. And you got to remember the Brexit campaign, it was led by Boris Johnson. They had no plan for actually how to leave the European Union. So the result was political chaos.

DETROW: And this is the moment you lost your first prime minister. David Cameron immediately resigns. Theresa May takes over. And is it fair to say that her main legacy is trying and failing over and over and over again to come up with a plan and get it through Parliament to actually implement Brexit?

LANGFITT: I think that's fair. I mean, her tenure was a disaster in many ways. At one point, she had a Brexit bill that lost by a modern parliamentary record 230 votes. Ultimately, she was forced to resign. And at that point, the British political system, which had been well-respected for so long, was a bit of a laughing stock. And then along comes Boris Johnson.

DETROW: Yeah, and he wins a landslide election in 2019. He finally passes Brexit. It's been about three years since that went into effect. What's the impact been?

LANGFITT: Well, I think it clearly has damaged the British economy. Nearly all economists predicted this is what was going to happen. And the government's own fiscal watchdog expects the British economy will become 4% smaller than it would have been otherwise. And this comes, of course, at a difficult time because Britain is still struggling with the COVID hangover and high inflation triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

DETROW: So going back to the initial vote, British people voted for Brexit 52% to 48-. How do people feel about that decision now? And what do you think years later the big lessons are?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I think there are clear signs of regret, Scott. The recent polls show 58% would vote to rejoin the EU if they could. Part of that is some older Brexit voters passing away. But the other thing is the sense that there really has been an economic cost. And in terms of lessons, I think never take something so complicated as this, which is, you know, untangling a decades-long economic and legal relationship, take it to voters. 'Cause I think to some degree, you're maybe asking too much of them.

The second lesson is don't lie to them, which is what Boris Johnson did. You remember, before the referendum, he was driving around in this red double-decker bus with a banner that said Brexit would bring back more than $400 million to the National Health Service. That wasn't true at all. And by the way, the National Health Service, the NHS, is a wreck now. And part of the problem is indeed underfunding. And these days, I say, certainly in Europe and certainly parts of the U.K., Brexit's seen as this big self-inflicted wound.

DETROW: And yet, despite taking the hits for lying, Johnson goes on to become the dominant political actor in the U.K. for much of that post-Brexit period. He wins this big landslide election. How did he do it?

LANGFITT: Johnson is a very complicated character, far beyond the performance that he puts on, and many people think it's absolutely a performance. He was very, very good at political messaging. He is funny and disarming. I've seen him in the - you know, on the stump, and he's very good. He has this gift of making people feel good about Britain. And here he is after the Conservative Party elected him leader. This was back in 2019.


BORIS JOHNSON: We are going to energize the country. We're going to get Brexit done on October the 31. We're going to take advantage of all the opportunities that it will bring in a new spirit of can-do. And we are once again going to believe in ourselves and what we can achieve. And like some slumbering giant, we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity.

DETROW: I don't know if can-do spirit really summed up everything that happened since then, huh?

LANGFITT: No. I mean, you know, what happened, of course, is we ended up with political chaos. And Johnson, to some degree, kind of ignored the downsides to a great extent. He - part of his brilliance was his ability to make people feel good even though the circumstances were not good at all. He's also part of what I think of as kind of like this British nostalgia machine. In his speeches, he would refer to Churchill, World War II, the British Empire, Britain when it was much more powerful and wealthy, make some people of that generation feel pretty good about it. Older conservative voters, you know, in his party, they love that stuff.

DETROW: And speaking of the British nostalgia machine, I think, honestly, we could have spent this entire segment talking about all of the changes to the royal family during your tenure. And just to tick off some of them, Prince Andrew had to settle a civil suit after he was accused of sex with an underage girl. Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, they moved to the U.S. They publicly attacked the royal family on charges of racism, using Britain's tabloid press against them. And, of course, last fall, Queen Elizabeth, this iconic figure, this symbol of stability, died. How is the monarchy holding up?

LANGFITT: You know, I got to say, pretty well. King Charles, he's avoided making any big mistakes. And his approval ratings are - have been going up. Meanwhile, Meghan and Harry's attacks have really backfired here. They're widely seen, honestly, as whiners.

DETROW: I think they've actually released two new books since we've started talking.


DETROW: But, I mean, what all does this tell us about the monarchy? Because as you reported, there was such skepticism about Prince Charles becoming King Charles. And yet it seems - from here, at least - like the public's accepting him.

LANGFITT: I think it's a fairly resilient institution. This has been, as you just described it, some of the worst years, certainly since the death of Princess Diana back in 1997. And it endures in part by, I think, weathering criticism quietly and then, you know, in the case of King Charles, not making further mistakes to make things worse.

DETROW: And let's get back to the actual system of governing. How is that looking these days as you're looking to depart London? Is it getting better?

LANGFITT: I think it is. I think it might be settling down a bit. You know, one reason is Boris Johnson's party, you know, the lawmakers there basically forced him out for lying over COVID lockdowns. Then you had Liz Truss as prime minister. She put in a budget that tanked markets. And again, the lawmakers pushed her out very quickly.

I was talking to Brian Klaas. He's an American political scientist who teaches at University College London. And this is what he said.

BRIAN KLAAS: Conservative voters did not approve of her. And when she failed, they turned on her. And she lasted for 49 days precisely because British democracy is still resilient.

LANGFITT: And I think that, you know, Scott, kind of captures the narrative arc here over the past seven years in the United Kingdom. You know, it began with complete chaos. And you have this sense now that the system - whether it's the royals, whether it's the British parliamentary system - is able to self-correct. And we now have a prime minister, Rishi Sunak, former treasury secretary, a technocrat, and he's so different than Boris Johnson. He seems, to some degree, a return to, you know, frankly, a duller but also a more dependable politics. And I mean that in the best possible way.

DETROW: That's Frank Langfitt, who's about to Brexit from NPR's London bureau and begin a new assignment back in the U.S. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Hey. Great to talk, Scott. 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.