Pressure in Britain builds on Theresa May to step aside as her party plots her possible ouster

The pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to resign following a humiliating election result continued to build Saturday, with a former top aide describing her office as “dysfunctional,” a leading newspaper pronouncing her “fatally wounded” and a former minister acknowledging that Tories were plotting possible replacements via the messaging service WhatsApp. 

May has insisted that she will not step aside and will instead form a new government that will lead the country through the treacherous currents of the Brexit talks to come. Several senior members of her Conservative Party have backed her, saying that the country can’t afford the chaos of starting to pick a new leader only days before negotiations with European leaders are to kick off. 

But other senior Tories have been conspicuous in their silence, and behind the scenes the party has been engaged in fevered debate over whether to push for May’s ouster now or to wait a few months until after the Brexit talks are launched. 

Either way, there was wide acknowledgment Saturday that May has effectively become lame-duck leader in the wake of a vote that was supposed to be her moment of crowning glory, but ultimately became a stinging repudiation. 

If May does announce plans to step aside, it would be the second time in the past year that Britain has been left leaderless after a Tory prime minister gambled and lost in calling a national vote. May came to office last summer after her predecessor, David Cameron, called a referendum on an E.U. exit, which he opposed. The referendum passed, and Cameron resigned the next morning. 

(Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The question of whether May will stay on is taking longer to answer — at least in part because no one expected her to lose Thursday, and therefore no one in her party was ready to try to topple her.

Although May technically has the votes she needs to carry on — assuming she can agree to a deal in which the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland props her up — she will have to step down if enough Tories move against her.

The Conservatives have a long history of unsentimentally sacking their leaders — Margaret Thatcher among them — when they have become more liability than asset.

In an indication of just how quickly the mood in the Tory inner sanctum was turning against May, a former senior Downing Street aide told the BBC Saturday morning that May’s office had been “pretty dysfunctional” and “toxic.” 

Katie Perrior, who was until recently the prime minister’s director of communications, called May “a good person” but blamed the prime minister’s co-chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who were also under pressure Saturday to resign.

Perrior implied that May was out of her depth after being elevated from home secretary to prime minister last July.

“Trying to make that change to Number 10 was more difficult than she possibly anticipated,” Perrior said.

Saturday’s newspapers made for grim reading for May after the shock of Friday, with even her friendliest media outlets piling on blame. The Daily Mail, an anti-immigrant, nationalist tabloid that has spent the past year cheering on May, published a photo of a shaken May along with the headline “Tories Turn on Theresa.” 

The Times of London, a beacon of establishment conservatism that had enthusiastically endorsed May, published an editorial arguing that she had created “a national emergency” by misjudging the mood of the country and that she was now left “fatally wounded.”

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“If she does not realize this it is another grave misjudgment,” the paper wrote. “More likely, she is steeling herself to provide what continuity she can as her party girds itself for an election to replace her.”

That seemed to be well underway Saturday. Former minister Ed Vaizey confirmed to the BBC that Tories were discussing possible replacements. But asked whether members were calling one another to plot May’s ouster, he denied it. 

“That’s so 20th century,” he said. “It’s all on WhatsApp.”

Until the early hours of Friday, when the disastrous results for May came into focus, she had overwhelming popularity within the Tory rank-and-file. But that seems to have already changed. 

An unscientific poll of party members by the ConservativeHome website, a popular gathering spot for Tory activists, 60 percent wanted May to step down.

“It’s not clear to me that Theresa May is going to survive the next few days,” said Ian Kearns, co-founder of the European Leadership Network, a London-based think tank. “The level of damage that she’s done to her own brand is immense. The rebellion against her is just getting started.” 

If May does go, the timing will be critical. Some in the party were advocating Saturday that she at least be allowed to stay on for the next several months to stabilize the country as it heads into Brexit talks. 

“Voters do not want further months of uncertainty and upheaval,” William Hague, a former party leader and former foreign secretary, wrote in the Telegraph. “They want to see ministers getting on with the job, while acknowledging democracy and their constrained circumstances.”

May was expected Saturday to name her cabinet picks and to try to carry on with business as usual. It was the same routine she had followed Friday when she responded to the crushing election results by acting as though nothing much had changed.

She would stay on as prime minister. She would keep her cabinet’s elite circle. Her plans for Brexit would go forward. 

“That’s what people voted for last June,” she announced defiantly outside 10 Downing Street after meeting with Queen Elizabeth II to discuss her new government. “That’s what we’ll deliver. Now let’s get to work.”

But beneath the bravado was a creeping reality: A year after choosing to get out of the European Union, voters had stunned the establishment once more. In the process, they may have thrust a dagger through the heart of a young premiership that only days ago had looked to be on the verge of achieving power of Thatcheresque proportions.

At the least, Kearns and other observers said Friday, May will have to thoroughly rethink her plans for Brexit, only days before critical talks with the E.U. are due to launch. An uncompromising demand for a hard break from Europe may have to be downgraded to a far more modest rupture, Kearns said, perhaps one that does not look much like an exit at all.

With murmurs of a party coup building, May sought to buy herself time. She reappointed Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and other top ministers — several of whom are potential plotters and would-be replacements if she is deposed. 

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Notably, many of those figures have been quiet since the election, avoiding any public defense of May.

May also promised on Friday there would be no delays in negotiations with the E.U., which are scheduled to begin June 19.

“What the country needs more than ever is certainty,” she said. 

But that was one thing Britain clearly lacked. 

The results from Thursday’s vote did not create any immediate path for the country to retreat from the Brexit brink. But the outcome instantly complicated — if not scuttled altogether — May’s meticulously laid strategy for getting out of the E.U., while also heightening doubts that she can reach a deal with European leaders over the next two years.

Without an agreement, Britain would crash out of the bloc and face giving up all the privileges of membership. Some lawmakers have pushed for Parliament to be allowed an emergency brake that would keep the country in should the talks fail.

At least, May could be forced to rethink her objectives in the negotiations, perhaps pushing for a softer break than the one she had sold to the public this spring.

Late Friday, May suggested she could be considering a course change, telling broadcasters that she would take time to “reflect” on an election that left her authority in tatters and tipped the scales in favor of her political opponents, including the once-hapless far-left Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Final results in every district nationwide put the Conservatives at 318 seats — eight short of what they would need for a working majority in the 650-member Parliament and well down from the 331 they won just two years ago.

The Labour Party won 262 seats — an unexpected gain of dozens of seats under Corbyn

For May, those results were precisely the opposite of what she had hoped. May called the snap election seeking to strengthen her hand in the E.U. negotiations and to further sideline her political critics.

But with her slender majority having vanished overnight, May was put in the humiliating position of having to woo Northern Ireland’s right-wing Democratic Unionist Party — with 10 seats it is Parliament’s fifth-largest — into a deal just to have any hope of mustering the majority needed to keep the Tories in power.

Even that could prove difficult. May said outside 10 Downing Street that the DUP would back her government.

But a deal is not yet sealed. The leader of the Democratic Unionists, Arlene Foster, said Friday afternoon that talks were still underway.

When asked whether May would be able to remain as prime minister, Foster told the BBC on Friday that she was unsure, adding, “I think it will be difficult.”

Foster’s party is likely to strike a tough bargain with the Tories. The Democratic Unionists backed leaving the E.U. but have opposed elements of May’s line in the divorce proceedings — especially provisions that could affect trade and movement on either side of the border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland.

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The political wreckage of Thursday’s vote also included Paul Nuttall, who stepped down as leader of the U.K. Independence Party. The anti-immigration party had led the charge for Brexit, but its support cratered this year: It won just 2 percent of the vote, compared with 13 percent in 2015.

Scottish nationalists — seeking a boost ahead of an expected second independence referendum — were also dealt a debilitating setback that raised questions about whether the referendum plans will be scrapped.

But the election’s biggest loser was undoubtedly the woman who had decided to call it: May.

The loss was widely interpreted in Britain as a personal repudiation of a politician who seemed to have charmed the country only months ago with her vow to be a “bloody difficult woman” in exit negotiations with her E.U. counterparts. 

Now it is unclear whether she will even make it to the negotiating table when talks begin.

May has vowed a hard break with the bloc, one that leaves Britain outside the single market, the customs union and the European Court of Justice. But she has also promised to deliver a free-trade deal that would preserve the best elements of membership without many of the onerous burdens.

European leaders have insisted that such a sweetheart arrangement is not possible.

On Friday, continental leaders expressed fresh frustration with the latest twist in Britain’s ­drama-laden departure. 

European Council President Donald Tusk responded to the vote by saying there was “no time to lose” to start the talks, so they can be finished by the spring of 2019.

Kearns, of the European Leadership Network, said May’s best hope for keeping her job would be to “bin the entire approach she’s taken so far to Brexit and go back to the drawing board.” 

Instead of the clean break from Europe she’s sought, Kearns said, May would find cross-party support for a softer separation that leaves Britain formally outside the E.U. but with many of the same attachments that define its relationship to the bloc today. 

But without that sort of pivot, he said, May’s time in power is probably running out. 

“If she tries to stick with the same approach, her own party will remove her,” Kearns said, “because they understand that her strategy is doomed to failure.”