LONDON (AFP) - British Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to lose her two closest aides on Saturday (June 10) as she struggled to reassert her authority following a crushing election setback.
The Conservative leader has been warned that her days are numbered after calling Thursday's vote three years early, only to lose her majority in parliament.
Senior party figures have cautioned against any immediate leadership challenge, saying it would only cause further disruption as Britain prepares to start Brexit negotiations 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.
May announced on Friday she would seek to form a minority government with the help of a small Northern Irish party, the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
She sent her chief whip Gavin Williamson to Belfast on Saturday to begin talks with the DUP "on how best they can provide support to the government", a spokesman said.
May put on a brave face following Thursday's vote, expressing sorrow for the MPs who lost their seats, but refusing to acknowledge how her election gamble backfired.
"From hubris to humiliation," said the left-leaning Guardian.
"May stares into the abyss," wrote The Times, while Conservative-supporting The Sun tabloid said succinctly: "She's had her chips."
The resignations of Timothy and Hill, on whom May has been heavily reliant since her previous job at the interior ministry, will be a personal blow.
Timothy said he took responsibility for the Conservative manifesto, including a plan for elderly social care that caused a backlash among many core voters.
A party spokesman confirmed the resignation of Hill, a combative character who one former colleague said had helped create a "toxic" atmosphere at the heart of government.
The news came as May prepared to name the rest of her Cabinet, after revealing on Friday that her five most senior ministers would remain in their posts.
Before the election, she had been widely expected to sack finance minister Philip Hammond following a reported clash over her Brexit strategy.
Several Conservative lawmakers have warned that May cannot carry on indefinitely, after throwing away a 17-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.
But former party leader Iain Duncan Smith said a leadership contest now would be a "catastrophe", while his predecessor William Hague said: "Voters do not want further months of uncertainty and upheaval."
DUP 'HAS TO GO'
The Conservatives won 318 seats, down from 331 in 2015 and falling short of an overall majority, after the opposition Labour party under socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn scored hefty gains.
DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose party won 10 seats, said Friday she was ready to talk to the Conservatives on "how it may be possible to bring stability to our nation".
But Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who is gay, was among the first to express disquiet over a deal with the DUP, which is opposed to abortion and gay rights.
"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 told the BBC.
Several hundred people - many Labour voters - protested in central London against the potential alliance, with one organiser leading chants of "racist, sexist, anti-gay, the DUP has got to go".
Joining forces with the hardline unionist 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".
The DUP is "likely to increase the pressure on Theresa May to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement" in place of its single market membership, said Stephen Booth of the Open Europe think tank.
The new parliament meets on June 13, but the real test for May is likely to come on June 19, when she must show she has enough support to pass her legislative programme in the Queen's Speech.
European Council President Donald Tusk has 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.