LONDON, June 11 (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May was on Sunday seeking a deal with a small Northern Irish party that she needs to stay in power after a disastrous election destroyed her authority days before Brexit talks are due to start.
May’s grip on power was tenuous after she gambled away a parliamentary majority in an election she did not need to call. Conservative Party loyalists urged her to change her leadership style, while critics talked about her days being numbered.
“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.
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.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he could still be prime minister, although his party has no obvious way to build a majority coalition. He said a new election might be necessary later this year or early in 2018.
The political turmoil comes a week before Britain is due to start negotiating the terms of its exit from the European Union in talks of unprecedented complexity that are supposed to wrap up by the end of March 2019, when Britain actually leaves.
That timeline now looks even more ambitious than before, not least because May’s electoral debacle has emboldened those within her own party who object to her “hard Brexit” approach of leaving the European single market and customs union.
CONCERNS ABOUT DUP
May’s only hope of forming a government now is to win support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which won 10 seats. She is seeking a so-called confidence and supply deal, which would involve the DUP supporting the Conservatives on key votes but not joining a formal coalition.
DUP leader Arlene Foster told Sky News she would meet May on Tuesday.
The prospect of being propped up by the socially conservative DUP, which is strongly focused on Northern Ireland’s specific political complexities, was causing concerns in the Conservative party, senior lawmaker Graham Brady said.
“I think there is concern about the policies of the DUP, the domestic policies in Northern Ireland, but I think it’s pretty clear that any arrangement that is reached is not going to be a full coalition,” he told BBC Radio 4.
The DUP is strongly opposed to single-sex marriage and abortion, which is at odds with Conservative policies.
There are also concerns about the potential impact of the proposed arrangement on Northern Ireland’s peace agreement, which relies in part on London being an impartial arbiter between those, such as the DUP, who want the province to remain in the United Kingdom and those who want it to be part of Ireland.
“There has been a lot of hyperbole about the DUP since Thursday,” Foster said. “Just to be clear, we will act in the national interest. We want to do what is right for the whole of the UK.”
Asked whether a Conservative-DUP deal would endanger the peace agreement, Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan told ITV: “Not necessarily the case. It remains to be seen what the nature of that deal is.”
But he said Ireland was anxious for the Brexit talks to go ahead despite the turmoil in London, and for the deal that they produce not to damage peace in Northern Ireland.
After Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic will be the only land border between the United Kingdom and the European Union, raising concerns over the potential return of border checks that could stoke tensions.
But lawmaker Brady said Britain had no alternative to a Conservative-DUP deal, other than a new election, which he said the public did not want.
May’s Downing Street office had announced on Saturday that the “principles of an outline agreement” had been agreed with the DUP, only for the smaller party to contradict that account hours later.
Downing Street backtracked, saying she had “discussed finalizing” a deal in the coming week.
Even if a deal is struck, May could struggle to get backing from parliament for her Brexit stance.
Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC the government would be able to muster parliamentary support for its Brexit plans, adding: “Our view of Brexit I don’t think has changed.”
But Anna Soubry, a Conservative member of parliament who campaigned ahead of last year’s referendum for Britain to stay in the EU, disagreed.
“I don’t think she does have a majority in the House of Commons for leaving the single market,” she told Sky News.
In a measure of the desperation in Conservative ranks, Brady, who is chairman of the influential 1922 committee of Conservative lawmakers, suggested the party could end up relying on support from pro-Brexit opposition members of parliament.
“We will happily have the support of members of the Labour Party as well on some of our policies,” he said. “I’m sure many of them will want to vote for government measures needed to execute our departure from the EU.”
With media asking whether May could remain in Downing Street after her electoral humiliation, ministers said now was not the time for the further uncertainty that a party leadership contest would bring.
“This is not the time for sharks to be circling. This is the time for us to come together as a party,” culture minister Karen Bradley told Sky News.
But Soubry said May’s time in the top job would be limited.
“I just can’t see how she can continue in any long-term way. I think she will have to go, unfortunately. But not for some time, let’s get this clear. We need stability.”
Several newspapers said Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was being urged by supporters to launch a leadership challenge, but he dismissed the reports as “tripe” in a tweet saying he was backing May.
Even loyal supporters talked openly on Sunday about how May needed to change her leadership style, in particular her reliance on a tight-knit circle of advisers.
“We are going to see, I hope, more collective decision-making in the cabinet. I and other senior colleagues have made that clear to her,” said Fallon.
May’s two closest advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, both resigned on Saturday.
A NEW ELECTION?
Meanwhile, a buoyant Corbyn was insisting he saw a route for Labour to form a government, despite the electoral arithmetic.
“I can still be prime minister. This is still on,” Corbyn told the Sunday Mirror newspaper.
A veteran leftist who unexpectedly became Labour leader in 2015 on a wave of grassroots enthusiasm, but was seen by most of his own party’s lawmakers as an electoral no-hoper, Corbyn beat expectations with a well-run campaign of striking policies.
He said his party would seek to vote down May’s Queen’s Speech, or program for government, when she presented it to parliament on June 19, and 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.
(Additional reporting by Conor Humphries in Dublin; Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Keith Weir and Kevin Liffey)