UK's May isolated ahead of Brexit talks as key aides quit
Prime Minister Theresa May appeared increasingly isolated after a botched election gamble that left her severely weakened and plunged Britain into a political crisis, days before the start of talks to leave the European Union.
May's two closest aides resigned on Saturday, paying the price for the failure to crush the opposition Labour Party under its radical left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour stunned even its own supporters by winning more parliamentary seats than expected and, although it lost the election, its performance was widely seen as a moral victory for Corbyn.
May called the vote three years early in the hope of scoring a sweeping win to strengthen her hand in the challenging Brexit talks, which are due to start in nine days' time.
That calculation backfired spectacularly on Thursday as voters stripped her Conservative Party of a parliamentary majority and forced her to turn to a small political party from Northern Ireland to prop up a minority government.
May's aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, announced on Saturday that they had quit following sustained criticism of the campaign within the party.
Timothy and Hill had worked for May when she was interior minister, before she became prime minister in July last year in the chaotic days that followed the Brexit vote, and their influence had increasingly angered senior ministers.
Since the election, most of the members of her cabinet have kept quiet on the issue of May's future, adding to speculation that her days as prime minister might be numbered.
"SHE'S STAYING - FOR NOW"
Britain's typically pro-Conservative press questioned whether she could remain in power with the clock ticking on the two-year EU divorce process.
The best-selling Sun newspaper said senior members of the party had vowed to get rid of May, but would wait at least six months because they feared a leadership contest could propel Labour into power under Corbyn, who supports renationalisation of key industries and higher taxes for business and top earners.
"She's staying, for now," one Conservative Party source told Reuters. Former Conservative cabinet minister Owen Paterson, asked about her future, said: "Let's see how it pans out."
A senior Conservative lawmaker was in Belfast on Saturday for talks with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 seats in the new parliament could give May just enough support to pass legislation.
A source close to the DUP said the party was seeking more funding for the province and concessions for former British soldiers in exchange for supporting May.
But the wooing of the DUP risks upsetting the political balance in Northern Ireland by aligning London more closely with the pro-British side in the divided province, where a power-sharing government with Irish nationalists is currently suspended.
The crisis also increases the chance that Britain will fall out of the EU in 2019 without a deal.May called the snap election to win a clear mandate for her plan to take Britain out of the EU's single market and customs union in order to cut immigration.
But her party is deeply divided over what it wants from Brexit, and the election result means British businesses still have no idea what trading rules they can expect in the coming years.
EU Budget Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said it may now be possible to discuss closer ties between Britain and the EU than May had initially planned, given her election flop.
"For instance, if London were to stay in the customs union, then it would not have to renegotiate all trade agreements," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper.
The British pound tumbled on Friday against the U.S. dollar and the euro before stabilising, down 1.7 and 1.4 percent against the two currencies respectively.
After confirming on Friday that her top five ministers, including finance minister Philip Hammond, would keep their jobs, May must name the rest of her team, who will take on one of the most demanding jobs in recent British history.
May has said Brexit talks will begin on June 19 as scheduled, the same day as the formal reopening of parliament.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she assumed Britain still wanted to leave the EU and talks should start quickly.
But Elmar Brok, a German conservative and the European Parliament's top Brexit expert, told the Ruhr Nachrichten newspaper that the talks would now be more complicated.
"May won't be able to make any compromises because she lacks a broad parliamentary majority," he said.
If she is to succeed in delivering the wishes of the 52 percent of voters who opted to take Britain out of the EU last year, she must find a way to bridge the differences within her party to pass legislation preparing for and enacting the departure.
Anand Menon, professor of politics at King's College London, said her lack of a parliamentary majority made it far more likely that Britain would leave the EU without a deal.
"Imagine she survives until autumn of next year," he said. "You will have a very fractious parliament. It is far from guaranteed to vote the deal through."
A failure to get legislation through parliament could eventually trigger another election.
Conservative Party insiders are also wondering how long May will last. "Theresa May is certainly the strongest leader that we have at the moment," lawmaker David Jones told the BBC.
The Times newspaper's front page declared "May stares into the abyss". It said Britain was "effectively leaderless" and the country "all but ungovernable". Its cartoon depicted May in a coffin with her feet sticking out and a speech bubble saying "Nothing has changed", a line she repeated several times as she reversed a key policy on social care during the campaign.
"The Conservatives have not yet broken the British system of democracy, but through their hubris and incompetence they have managed to make a mockery of it," it said in an editorial. "The task of restoring orderly government in order to make sense of Brexit is now a national emergency, and it falls to them."
The Telegraph newspaper said senior Conservatives including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, interior minister Amber Rudd and Brexit minister David Davis were taking soundings over whether to seek to oust May.
(Writing by William Schomberg and Kate Holton; additional reporting by Alistair Smout, Costas Pitas, Kylie MacLellan and David Milliken in London, Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Editing by Kevin Liffey)