LONDON (REUTERS, AFP) - Prime Minister Theresa May was fighting to hold on to her job on Friday (June 9) as British voters denied her the stronger mandate she had sought to lead the country into divorce talks with the European Union.
After the results of 645 seats were declared, her ruling Conservative Party was on 314 seats and therefore no longer able to reach the 326 mark it would need to claim a majority in Britain’s 650-seat parliament. Labour had won 261 seats.
With no clear winner emerging from Thursday’s parliamentary election, a wounded Mrs May signalled she would fight on, despite calls from some lawmakers within her party to quit. Her Labour rival Jeremy Corbyn also said she should step down.
British media reported that the PM had no intention to resign. She was due to address the nation at 5pm Singapore time.
"Theresa May has no intention of announcing her resignation later today," BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg told BBC radio, adding, however: "It's not clear to me whether they're trying to kill the rumours off before she truly makes her mind up."
With talks of unprecedented complexity on Britain’s departure from the European Union due to start in just 10 days’ time, the pound sterling was hit by uncertainty over who would form the next government and over the fundamental direction Brexit would take.
“At this time, more than anything else this country needs a period of stability,” a grim-faced May said after winning her own parliamentary seat of Maidenhead, near London. “If... the Conservative Party has won the most seats and probably the most votes then it will be incumbent on us to ensure that we have that period of stability and that is exactly what we will do.”
After winning his own seat in north London, Mr Corbyn said Mrs May’s attempt to win a bigger mandate had backfired.
“The mandate she’s got is lost Conservative seats, lost votes, lost support and lost confidence,” he said. “I would have thought that’s enough to go, actually, and make way for a government that will be truly representative of all of the people of this country.”
Ms Anna Soubry, a lawmaker from the ruling party, was the first in the party to break cover, calling on Mrs May to “consider her position”.
“I’m afraid we ran a pretty dreadful campaign,” Ms Soubry said.
“She’s in a very difficult place, she’s a remarkable and a very talented woman and she doesn’t shy from difficult decisions, but she now has to obviously consider her position,” she told the BBC.
“Theresa did put her mark on this campaign, she takes responsibility as she always does, and I know she will, for the running of the campaign.”
However, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, lawmaker from the Conservative's Eurosceptic wing, said, “I think Mrs May will have a good deal of support. She’s only been the leader for under a year, she got it without any opposition, an uncontested election with support up and down the country.
"I don’t think the Conservative Party is so fickle, or such a fair-weather friend as it would not continue to back the Prime Minister,” he said.
Mrs May had unexpectedly called the snap election seven weeks ago, even though no vote was due until 2020. At that point, polls predicted she would massively increase the slim majority she had inherited from predecessor David Cameron.
Instead, she risks an ignominious exit after just 11 months at Number 10 Downing Street, which would be the shortest tenure of any prime minister for almost a century.
“Perhaps the most obvious conclusion is that the likelihood of the UK needing to request a delay in the Brexit process has risen substantially,” JPMorgan said in a note.
“MAY IS TOAST”
“Whatever happens, Theresa May is toast,” said Mr Nigel Farage, former leader of the anti-EU party UKIP.
Mrs May had spent the campaign denouncing MrCorbyn as the weak leader of a spendthrift party that would crash Britain’s economy and flounder in Brexit talks, while she would provide “strong and stable leadership” to clinch a good deal for Britain.
But her campaign unravelled after a major policy u-turn on care for the elderly, while Mr Corbyn’s old-school socialist platform and more impassioned campaigning style won wider support than anyone had foreseen.
Political turmoil in Britain is the worst-case scenario for EU leaders who want to press ahead quickly with Brexit talks. These are due to start on June 19 but now risk being delayed - narrowing the window of time available to clinch a deal before a March 2019 deadline.
“Could be messy for the United Kingdom in the years ahead. One mess risks following another. Price to be paid for lack of true leadership,” tweeted former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, one of the EU’s elder statesmen.
Sterling fell by more than 2 cents against the US dollar after an exit poll showed May losing her majority, though it later recovered some of its losses.
“A hung parliament is the worst outcome from a markets perspective as it creates another layer of uncertainty ahead of the Brexit negotiations and chips away at what is already a short timeline to secure a deal for Britain,” said Mr Craig Erlam, an analyst with brokerage Oanda in London.
With the smaller parties more closely aligned with Labour than with the Conservatives, the prospect of Mr Corbyn becoming prime minister no longer seems fanciful. That would make the course of Brexit even harder to predict.
During his three decades on Labour’s leftist fringe, Mr Corbyn consistently opposed European integration and denounced the EU as a corporate, capitalist body. As party leader, Mr Corbyn unenthusiastically campaigned for Britain to remain in the bloc, but has said that Labour would deliver Brexit if in power, albeit with very different priorities from those stated by May.
“What tonight is about is the rejection of Theresa May’s version of extreme Brexit,” said Mr Keir Starmer, Labour’s policy chief on Brexit, saying his party wanted to retain the benefits of the European single market and customs union.
On a nerve-racking night for the Conservatives, interior minister Amber Rudd held on to her seat by a whisker, while several junior ministers were swept away.
In one of many striking moments, the party lost the seat of Canterbury for the first time in a century.
The Conservatives could potentially turn for support to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a natural ally, projected to win 10 seats. But Labour had potential allies too, not least the Scottish National Party (SNP) who suffered major setbacks but still won a majority of Scottish seats.
The pro-EU, centre-left Liberal Democrats were having a mixed night. Their former leader Nick Clegg, who was deputy prime minister from 2010 to 2015, lost his seat. But former business minister Vince Cable won his back, and party leader Tim Farron held on.
In domestic policy, Labour proposes raising taxes for the richest 5 per cent of Britons, scrapping university tuition fees, investing £250 billion (S$440 billion) in infrastructure plans and re-nationalising the railways and postal service.
Analysis suggested that Labour had benefited from a strong turnout among young voters.
UKIP saw a collapse in its support, shedding votes evenly to the two major parties instead of overwhelmingly to the Conservatives, as pundits had expected.
“UKIP voters wanted Brexit but they also want change,” Mr Farage said. “They are fundamentally anti-establishment in their attitudes and the vicar’s daughter (May) is very pro-establishment. And I think she came across in the campaign as not only as wooden and robotic but actually pretty insincere.”
In Scotland, the pro-independence SNP was in retreat despite winning most seats. Having won all but three of Scotland’s 59 seats in the British parliament in 2015, its share of the vote fell sharply and it lost seats to the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
The campaign had played out differently in Scotland than elsewhere, the main faultline being the SNP’s drive for a second referendum on independence from Britain, having lost a previous plebiscite in 2014.
SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it had been a disappointing night for her party, while Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said Ms Sturgeon should take the prospect of a new independence referendum off the table.