BRITISH Prime Minister Theresa May is seeking a deal with a small Northern Irish party in order to stay in power after a disastrous election that destroyed her authority just days before Brexit talks are due to start.
British media reported that moves were afoot within May’s Conservative Party to dislodge her, while opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who exceeded expectations in Thursday’s vote, called for her to go and said he could form a government.
Former Conservative finance minister George Osborne, sacked by May when she became prime minister last year, told the BBC: “Theresa May is a dead woman walking. It’s just how long she’s going to remain on death row.”
The Conservatives won 318 House of Commons seats in Thursday’s election, eight short of an outright majority. Labour, the main opposition party, won 262.
May’s only hope of forming a government is to win support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which won 10 seats. She is seeking a so-called confidence and supply deal, which would involve the DUP supporting the Conservatives on key votes but not joining a formal coalition.
Her Downing Street office initially announced on Saturday that the “principles of an outline agreement” had been agreed, only for the smaller party to contradict that account hours later.
Downing Street backtracked, saying she had “discussed finalizing” a deal in the coming week. DUP leader Arlene Foster told Sky News she would be meeting May in Downing Street tomorrow.
The political turmoil comes as Britain is due to start negotiating on June 19 the terms of its exit from the European Union in talks of unprecedented complexity that are supposed to wrap up by the end of March 2019, when Britain actually leaves.
That timeline now looks even more ambitious than before, not least because May’s electoral debacle has emboldened those within her own party who object to her “hard Brexit” approach of leaving the European single market and customs union.
“The new Cabinet obviously will meet early next week, our view of Brexit I don’t think has changed,” Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC, adding that he believed the government would be able to muster parliamentary support for its Brexit plans.
But there were early signs that without a parliamentary majority, a weakened May could not count on all of her party’s lawmakers to support her approach.
“I don’t think she does have a majority in the House of Commons for leaving the single market,” said Anna Soubry, a Conservative member of parliament who campaigned ahead of last year’s referendum for Britain to stay in the EU.
With media asking whether May could remain in Downing Street after her electoral humiliation, ministers said now was not the time for the further uncertainty a party leadership contest would bring.
“This is not the time for sharks to be circling. This is the time for us to come together as a party,” Culture Minister Karen Bradley told Sky News.
But Soubry said May’s time in the top job would be limited.
“I just can’t see how she can continue in any long-term way. I think she will have to go unfortunately. But not for some time, let’s get this clear. We need stability,” she said.
Several newspapers said Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was being urged by supporters to launch a leadership challenge, but he dismissed the reports as “tripe” in a tweet saying he was backing May.
The exact contours of a potential Conservative-DUP deal were not yet known. Fallon said the DUP would agree to back the Conservatives on big economic and security issues.
Many critics, including Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, have expressed concerns over the DUP’s stances on gay marriage and abortion, among other issues.
Others have also said a Conservative-DUP deal could endanger Northern Ireland’s peace settlement, which relies on the British government being a neutral arbiter between those who want the province to remain in the United Kingdom and those who want it to become part of the Republic of Ireland.
“There has been a lot of hyperbole about the DUP since Thursday, a lot of things said,” DUP leader Foster told Sky News. “Just to be clear, we will act in the national interest. We want to do what is right for the whole of the UK.”
Meanwhile, a buoyant Corbyn was insisting he saw a route for Labour to form a government, although it was not clear how he would command the support of a majority of members of parliament given the electoral arithmetic.
“I can still be prime minister. This is still on,” Corbyn told the Sunday Mirror newspaper.
Corbyn beat expectations with a well-run, policy-rich campaign, but Labour had not secured anywhere near enough Commons seats to form a government, even with support from potential allies such as the Scottish National Party and other smaller parties.