Frank Langfitt

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Voters in the United Kingdom head to the polls Thursday for a crucial election that could determine the country's future, and how and when it will break off from the European Union.

This will be the fifth major vote in the country in less than five years — including two previous general elections, European Parliament elections and the Brexit referendum — a sign of how chaotic British politics have become.

The stakes are high, voters are weary and the two main candidates for prime minister are especially polarizing.

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The European Union and the United Kingdom reached a new Brexit agreement on Thursday, and while it appeared to mark a big breakthrough in the years-long process, the saga doesn't end here.

The withdrawal deal still needs approval in both the U.K. and European parliaments. Although EU leaders unanimously endorsed it in Brussels on Thursday, it faces stiff opposition in Britain's Parliament, which has voted down three previous Brexit deals.

The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU on Oct. 31.

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The United Kingdom and the European Union say they have agreed to a Brexit withdrawal deal. NPR's Frank Langfitt is on the line from London. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Noel.

KING: So it has been a journey.

LANGFITT: It has.

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Now we're going to turn to NPR's London correspondent, Frank Langfitt, who was listening to our conversation with former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. Frank, thank you so much for listening and being here.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

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Updated at 6 p.m. ET

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he is ready to call a snap election after lawmakers cleared the way for a vote on Wednesday to prevent the U.K. from leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement at the end of October.

The announcement was the culmination of a dramatic day that saw a defection rob Johnson and his ruling Conservative Party of their single-seat majority in Parliament.

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It has been another extraordinary day in British politics...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Whose Parliament? Our Parliament. Whose Parliament? Our Parliament.

Frank Langfitt (@franklangfitt) is NPR's international correspondent in London and was previously based in Shanghai, China. His new book is The Shanghai Free Taxi.

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Reading online news headlines from the United Kingdom today, you'll see a divide over what Prime Minister Boris Johnson's call to suspend Parliament means.

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The United Kingdom is headed for another showdown next month over Brexit, an issue that has paralyzed British politics for several years and ended the careers of the two previous prime ministers.

This year, Parliament thrice defeated a U.K. withdrawal agreement that then-Prime Minister Theresa May's government had negotiated with the European Union. Parliament reconvenes on Sept. 3.

Here are some of the key challenges facing Boris Johnson, the new prime minister, who has vowed to take the U.K. out of the European Union one way or another on Oct. 31.

Britain would face gridlock at ports; shortages of medicine, fuel and food; and a hard border with Ireland if it left the European Union with no deal, according to a leaked government document.

At a time of polarization and political chaos, the United Kingdom and the United States are about to be led by two remarkably similar figures. On Tuesday, Britain's ruling Conservative Party elected Boris Johnson as their leader by an overwhelming margin, sending him to No. 10 Downing Street. He will take office on Wednesday.

When the Mail on Sunday published private assessments of the White House from the British ambassador to the United States, President Trump expressed outrage.

In a leaked cable, Ambassador Kim Darroch called the White House "inept" and "incompetent" and said the president "radiates insecurity." Trump called Darroch "stupid" and said he wouldn't deal with him.

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Boris Johnson is a larger-than-life British politician who likes to project the image of a bumbling, fun-loving man of the people.

His many supporters in Britain's Conservative Party find him charismatic, entertaining and — to their minds — refreshingly politically incorrect.

Many critics, however, see him as unprincipled, offensive and driven wholly by ambition.

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The special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom may not feel very special at the moment. President Trump's three-day visit to the U.K. got off to a rocky start on Monday, when he launched a Twitter attack on London Mayor Sadiq Khan as Air Force One was preparing to land.

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