May is seeking a deal with a Northern Irish party to prop up the Conservative minority administration, and lawmakers said the rebuff from voters meant the government will have to abandon planned policies and re-think its strategy for European Union exit talks.
A stream of senior lawmakers entered May’s 10 Downing St. office Sunday afternoon, to learn what roles they had been given in government.
May’s weakened position in the party ruled out big changes. All the most senior ministers — including Treasury chief Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and Home Secretary Amber Rudd — kept their jobs and there were few changes in the Cabinet lineup.
Damian Green, a lawmaker in the pro-EU wing of the party, was promoted to first secretary of state — effectively deputy prime minister.
May also reappointed an old adversary — Michael Gove, a former rival for the Conservative leadership whom May fired from the Cabinet when she took office last year. The pro-Brexit Gove was appointed Environment Secretary.
As rumors swirled about plots to oust May, Johnson denied he was planning a leadership challenge. He tweeted that an article in the Mail on Sunday newspaper headlined “Boris set to launch bid to be PM as May clings on” was “tripe.”
In a WhatsApp message to Conservative lawmakers, Johnson said: “Folks we need to calm down and get behind the prime minister.”
In Thursday’s election the Conservatives won 318 of the 650 House of Commons seats, 12 fewer than the party had before the snap election, and eight short of the 326 needed for an outright majority. Labour surpassed expectations by winning 262.
Former Treasury chief George Osborne — who was fired by May last year — called May a “dead woman walking,” and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he was ready to contest another election at any time.
Many senior Conservatives say May should stay, for now, to provide stability. But few believe she can hang on for more than a few months.
“I think her position is, in the long term, untenable,” Conservative lawmaker Anna Soubry told Sky News.
But Graham Brady, who chairs the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative lawmakers, said a “self-indulgent” party leadership campaign would only cause more uncertainty.
He acknowledged that the government would now be unable to get many of the measures promised in its election platform through Parliament.
May called the election called in a bid to strengthen her mandate ahead of EU exit talks. Instead, she has left Britain’s position in disarray, days before the divorce negotiations are due to start on June 19.
Voters failed to give a ringing endorsement to May’s plan for Brexit, which involves leaving the EU’s single market and imposing restrictions on immigration while trying to negotiate free trade deal with the bloc.
Some say her failure means the government must now take a more flexible approach to the divorce, potentially softening the exit terms.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who took the party from one Scottish seat to 13, said there would now have to be “consensus within the country about what it means and what we seek to achieve as we leave.”
To stay in power, the Conservatives are seeking support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
The two sides are looking to form a “confidence and supply” arrangement. That means the DUP would back the government on confidence motions and budget votes, but it’s not a coalition government or a broader pact.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said “we have made good progress but the discussions continue.”
The alliance makes some modernizing Conservatives uneasy. The DUP is a socially conservative group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and had links to Protestant paramilitary groups during Ireland’s sectarian “Troubles.”
Conservative lawmaker Nicky Morgan told ITV that she could support a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP, but any closer deal would be “a step too far.”
A deal between the government and the DUP could also unsettle the precarious balance between Northern Ireland’s British loyalist and Irish nationalist parties, whose power-sharing administration in Belfast collapsed earlier this year.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny tweeted Sunday that he had spoken with May “and indicated my concern that nothing should happen to put (the Good Friday Agreement) at risk.”
The 1998 Good Friday agreement set up power sharing in Northern Ireland, largely ending years of sectarian violence.
The British government doesn’t have long to ink a deal. It is due to present its platform for the next session in the Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on June 19. The speech will be followed by several days of debate and a vote. By tradition, defeat on a Queen’s Speech vote topples the government.
Corbyn said Labour would try to amend the Queen’s Speech to include its own commitments to end austerity and boost public spending. Without the amendments, he said Labour would try to vote down the speech.
“I don’t think Theresa May and this government have any credibility,” Corbyn told the Sunday Mirror, predicting that there could be another election within months.
“I can still be prime minister,” Corbyn said. “This is still on.”