British PM Theresa May under fresh pressure as top aides quit

Alice Ritchie, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jun 11 2017 01:21 AM

British leader Theresa May sought to frame the campaign around her personal leadership heading into Brexit, but this was undermined by public performances derided as robotic. File/Toby Melvillle, Reuters

British Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to relinquish her two closest aides on Saturday, as she struggled to reassert her authority following a crushing electoral setback.

The Conservative leader has been warned 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 reports suggest they 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 Friday she would seek to form a minority government with the help of a small Northern Irish party, the far-right Democratic Unionist Party.

She put on a brave face, refusing to show any contrition for the election gamble that spectacularly backfired, but observers say she has been deeply wounded.

"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."

- 'Toxic' atmosphere -

May had relied on Timothy and Hill for advice and support since her previous job at the interior ministry, and their resignations 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 ex-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 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. 

- 'No time to lose' - 

The Conservatives won 318 seats in Thursday's vote, down from 331 in 2015, falling short of an overall majority in the 650-seat House of Commons after the opposition Labour Party, led by socialist stalwart Jeremy Corbyn, scored hefty gains.

The DUP, which won 10 seats, said it is ready to talk with May about supporting her government, although such an alliance would be far from straight forward.

London's neutrality in Northern Ireland is key to the delicate balance of power in the province once plagued by decades of unrest.

But the Protestant DUP was founded to defend Northern Ireland's place in Britain against demands by Catholic republicans for a united Ireland.

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 prime minister has vowed to pull Britain out of Europe's single market in order to end mass migration from the bloc, despite fears of the economic impact.

The DUP is "likely to increase the pressure on Theresa May to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement", said Stephen Booth of the Open Europe think tank.

European Council President Donald Tusk has warned there was "no time to lose" in starting talks, after May started the two-year countdown to Brexit on March 29.

The DUP's opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion has also alarmed some in May's party, particularly Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who is gay.

Davidson, who led her party to its best result for three decades, winning 13 seats in Scotland, said she had sought and received assurances from May on the issue.

"I told her that there were a number of things that count to me more than the party. One of them is country, one of the others is LGBTI rights," she told the BBC.

- 'Further upheaval' -

May was interior minister for six years before taking over from David Cameron in the political chaos that following last June's Brexit referendum.

She inherited a 17-seat majority in the Commons, but called the snap vote to take advantage of opinion polls putting her on course for a landslide.

May sought to frame the campaign around her personal leadership heading into Brexit, but this was undermined by public performances derided as robotic.

Two terror attacks put scrutiny on her record of cutting police numbers, playing into the hands of the opposition Labour party and its promise to end austerity.

Conservative lawmaker Anna Soubry said May should "consider her position", while another, Heidi Allen, said she may not last six months.

However, former Conservative party leaders warned against any immediate change, with Iain Duncan Smith saying leadership contest would be a "catastrophe".

"Voters do not want further months of uncertainty and upheaval," William Hague wrote in the Daily Telegraph, while adding that "very serious lessons" would be learned.