LONDON (REUTERS, AFP) - British Prime Minister Theresa May was seeking a deal with a small Northern Irish party on Sunday (June 11) to stay in power after losing her party’s parliamentary majority in a catastrophic electoral gamble just days before Brexit talks are set to start.
But with May’s personal authority in tatters, there were reports that moves were under way within her Conservative Party to dislodge her, while opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was insisting she could be ousted and he could replace her.
“Theresa May is a dead woman walking. It’s just how long she’s going to remain on death row,” former Conservative finance minister George Osborne, who was sacked by May when she became prime minister last year, told the BBC.
With Britain due to start negotiating the terms of its exit from the European Union with the bloc’s 27 other members on June 19, the political crisis in London could not have come at a worse time.
Those exit talks, expected to be the most complex in post-World War Two European history, are supposed to wrap up before the end of March 2019 – a timeline that was already considered ambitious before May’s electoral debacle.
Her Downing Street office had announced on Saturday that the“principles of an outline agreement” with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had been agreed, only for the DUP itself to cast doubt on that account hours later.
“The talks so far have been positive. Discussions will continue next week to work on the details and to reach agreement on arrangements for the new parliament,” it said.
It was another humiliation for May, and a sign that the socially conservative DUP, with its strong focus on Northern Ireland’s specific political complexities, will not necessarily be a compliant partner for her minority government.
The DUP statement put Downing Street on the back foot, prompting a carefully worded response in the early hours of Sunday. That said May had “spoken with the DUP to discuss finalising” a deal in the coming week.
“We will welcome any such deal being agreed, as it will provide the stability and certainty the whole country requires as we embark on Brexit and beyond,” the Downing Street statement said.
CORBYN STAKES CLAIM
Many critics, including Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, have expressed concerns over the DUP’s stances against 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, a lot of people who really don’t know what we stand for,” DUP leader Arlene Foster told Sky News on Sunday morning.
“Just to be clear, we will act in the national interest. We want to do what is right for the whole of the UK and to bring stability to the government of the United Kingdom.”
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. The DUP won 10.
Labour’s Corbyn told the Sunday Mirror newspaper he saw a route to power himself, although it was not clear how he would command the support of a majority of members of parliament.
Labour’s tally, even when added to those of potential allies such as the Scottish National Party and other smaller parties, was still short of a majority.
“I can still be prime minister. This is still on. Absolutely,” Corbyn was quoted as saying.
He said his party would seek to vote down May’s Queen’s Speech, or programme for government, when she presented it to parliament.
Corbyn said another national election might be needed to break the deadlock.
“It is quite possible there will be an election later this year or early next year and that might be a good thing because we cannot go on with a period of great instability,” he told the BBC.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, one of May’s most loyal supporters, said he disagreed with Osborne’s description of her as a “dead woman walking” and he expected Conservative lawmakers to rally behind her.
Fallon told the BBC that in light of the election result a new approach was needed, welcoming the resignation of her two closest aides Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who were perceived by many Conservative lawmakers to be high-handed and secretive.
May had called the snap election with a view to increasing the narrow majority she had inherited from her predecessor David Cameron. At the start of the campaign, she was enjoying poll leads of 20 points or more over the main opposition Labour Party.
But after a poor campaign and an unexpectedly stiff challenge from Labour, her plan went disastrously wrong, leaving her unable to form a sustainable government without DUP support.
The Conservatives now plan to reach a so-called confidence and supply agreement with the DUP, which would involve it supporting a Conservative minority government on key votes in parliament but not forming a formal coalition.
Fallon said the DUP would agree to back the Conservatives on big economic and security issues. He said the parties had a history of friendship, and that did not mean the Conservatives agreed with some of the DUP’s more socially conservative positions.
While that to-and-fro was unfolding, several British newspapers were reporting that some prominent Conservatives, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit minister David Davis, were being urged by supporters to challenge May for the party leadership.
Johnson dismissed the reports as “tripe”, tweeting late on Saturday that he was backing May.
Senior party figures have cautioned against any immediate leadership challenge, saying it would cause only further disruption as Britain prepares to start talks with Brussels as early as June 19. But media reports suggest they had demanded the departure of May’s joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, as the price for allowing the 60-year-old vicar’s daughter to stay in office.
They were replaced by Gavin Barwell, a former housing minister who lost his seat in the election.
‘DUP has got to go’
The resignations of Timothy and Hill, on whom May had been heavily reliant since her previous job at the interior ministry, will be a personal blow. Timothy – a combative character who one former colleague said had helped create a “toxic” atmosphere at the heart of the government – said he took responsibility for the Conservative manifesto, including a plan for elderly social care that caused a backlash.
May is preparing to name the rest of her cabinet after revealing Friday that her five most senior ministers would stay in their posts. The Conservatives won 318 out of 650 seats – throwing away a 17-seat majority.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who is gay, was among the first to express disquiet over a deal with the ultra-conservative DUP.
“I sought, and to be fair to the prime minister, received a categoric assurance that in talking to the DUP that there would be no suggestion of any rollback on LGBTI rights in the rest of the UK,” she said.
Several hundred people – many of them Labour voters – protested in central London against the alliance, with chants of “racist, sexist, anti-gay, the DUP has got to go”.
Joining forces with the hardline Protestant party also threatens London’s neutrality in Northern Ireland, which is key to the delicate balance of power in a province once plagued by violence.
On Brexit, the DUP supports leaving the EU but opposes a return to a “hard” border with Ireland – which could happen if May carries through her threat to walk away from the talks rather than accept a “bad deal”.
May confirmed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call that Britain was ready to begin Brexit negotiations “as planned in the next couple of weeks”, reassuring EU leaders who had expressed doubts after her heavy electoral losses.
European Council President Donald Tusk had warned there was “no time to lose” in starting Brexit talks, after May on March 29 started the two-year countdown to ending Britain’s four-decade membership.